Serbia’s Vucic pledges stability as he seeks re-election

FILE PHOTO: Aleksandar Vucic the presidental candidate of the ruling SNS party (Serbian Progressive party) waves to his supporters
FILE PHOTO: Aleksandar Vucic the presidential candidate of the ruling SNS party (Serbian Progressive Party) waves to his supporters during a rally in Subotica, Serbia, March 29, 2022. REUTERS/Zorana Jevtic/File Photo

March 31, 2022

By Ivana Sekularac

BELGRADE (Reuters) – Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is running for re-election on Sunday on a promise of peace and stability as the country comes under pressure from the West to choose between traditional ties with Russia and its aspiration to join the European Union.

The election is for both president and parliament and opinion polls show that Vucic is likely to win another five-year term while his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) is also set to win a majority, although it is likely to fall short of its current 188 seats in the 250-seat parliament.

Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, which began days after Serbia’s election date was set, had a deep impact on the campaigning in Serbia, which was scarred by the Balkan wars two decades ago and where a majority of people support military neutrality.

Bojan Klacar, head of the CeSID pollster, said the war in Ukraine had forced a change away from what had been the main themes of the campaign, such as corruption, the environment and the rule of law among other things.

“The electorate is now seeking answers to their concerns regarding economic stability, living standards and political stability,” he said.

“It seems that the ruling party was more skilful in adjusting its campaign to people’s concerns.”

A poll by Faktor Plus pollster published in the Blic daily on Wednesday saw the ruling SNS winning 53.6% of the vote. It put a grouping of several opposition parties called Alliance for Victory second with 13.7 % of the vote and Vucic’s coalition partner, the Socialists, third with 10.2%.

A group of ecological movements which was formed less than a year ago would get 4.7% of the vote, the poll showed.

Vucic himself is set to win re-election in the first round on Sunday, polls show. Zdravko Ponos, general and former army chief of staff, is seen as coming second.

A longtime politician who was information minister in 1998 under former strongman Slobodan Milosevic, until 2008 Vucic had been a virulent anti-Western disciple of the Greater Serbia ideology that fuelled the 1990s wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia.

He converted to the cause of seeking EU membership when his SNS split from the Serbian Radical Party and now advocates military neutrality and ties with both Western countries and Russia and China.

Since 2012 when his party came to power Vucic has held several positions: defence minister, prime minister and – since 2017 – president.

Ponos has accused Vucic of using the war in Ukraine in his campaign to try to build national unity based on “people’s fear from the war in Ukraine”.

“I would never allow the war in Ukraine to be misused, if I were the president,” Ponos told N1 TV.

Vucic’s critics say his popularity is due to his autocratic style of rule which includes firm control of media and benefits such as employment in state-run firms that they say are reserved for his supporters.

Vucic has denied those accusations and say opposition leaders control two privately run TV stations, an allegation they deny.

“We have lived through many wars, and with him (Aleksandar Vucic) at least we have peace and stability,” Radmila, a 52-year-old housewife from Subotica, told Reuters.

Opposition parties say the election will be rigged and accuse the ruling party of falsifying voters’ lists. The ruling party denies this and has accused the opposition of the same thing.

“Voter mobilization will be crucial for the performance of opposition parties, but the poor weather forecast for the election day could dampen turnout,” Teneo consultancy said in its report.

(Reporting by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Frances Kerry)