That Europe has not lost its luster and power of attraction despite the eurozone crisis was made evident in an unlikely part of the continent : the Western Balkans. Beyond the excitement of this weekend’s French and Greek elections, Serbia also held presidential, parliamentary, and local elections. The message from the voters, after the mist of electoral rhetoric had been dispelled, was two-fold and clear : there is a sense of deep concern and dissatisfaction with the political class but also of belief in the need to pursue the paths of democratic reform and European integration.
In the presidential election, the incumbent, Boris Tadic, and his main opposition rival, Tomislav Nikolic, both qualified for the May 20 run-off, with most polls predicting a narrow victory for the pro-reform and pro-European Boris Tadic. In the parliamentary elections, both sides claimed a slice of victory, with Nikolic’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) winning the popular vote, but Tadic’s Democratic Party (DS) more likely to form a government with like-minded coalition partners. The allies of the DS will probably include the third-place Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), led by former Slobodan Milosevic spokesperson turned Europe- and reform-oriented Ivica Dacic (who made a strong showing, doubling his vote over the previous election), the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Cedomir Jovanovic, and possibly the Union of Regions of Serbia (URS) led by outgoing Minister of Economy and Regional Development Mladjan Dinkic, and smaller parties associated with Hungarian and Bosniak minorities, among others. The situation mirrors the post-electoral dynamics of the 2008 elections.
The global economic and financial crisis has not bypassed Serbia. The economy’s growth rate has plummeted, and rising unemployment, now at 24 percent, and falling standards of living are paramount concerns. Serbia has nonetheless continued to consolidate its democracy, knowing that it lost much time and energy during the 1990s under Milosevic and that it must play catch-up, however difficult the current socio-economic climate. That is the principal explanation of what can be considered a largely rational vote on the part of voters. But Serbia also suffers from all the ailments of modern-day politics. There is widespread disenchantment with the political class and political institutions, in particular the parliament, which translated into abstention and a sizeable number of blank protest votes being cast.
The good news is that the deeper political sociology of Serbia has continued to produce stable democratic habits and increasingly pro-European majorities since the 2000 electoral victory over Milosevic. The outgoing government completed its full four-year mandate, and these elections proved to be free and fair. The results were accepted by all political and civic actors despite some complaints about the media coverage of parties. Kosovo was also relegated to a secondary issue. Perhaps the most significant difference with the 2008 elections is that the vast majority of political parties are in the pro-European camp. For the first time in 20 years, the ultra-nationalist right-wing Serbian Radical Party (SRS) fell below the required threshold and will not be represented in parliament. In all, anti-European parties tallied only 16 percent of the vote.
Serbia’s achievements over the past four years are significant : the progressive consolidation of democracy, the acquisition of full candidate status toward membership in the EU, a visa-free regime for travel to the EU, the full collaboration with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the arrest of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the beginning of the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, continued and strengthened regional cooperation, and numerous important infrastructural projects, including the beginning of production of Fiat cars in the industrial heartland of Serbia. Yet in this difficult global environment, a strong government is required that continues a reform-oriented program leading to European integration, including tackling corruption, reforming loss-making public enterprises, pursuing robust judicial reform, creating a more investment-friendly environment, diminishing public spending, and negotiating a mutually acceptable solution to the issue of Kosovo with the help of the European Union, the United States, and other international bodies. If all of this can be accomplished, Serbia can successfully avoid the path that Greece appears on today and, within the mandate of the incoming government, approach the doorstep of full membership in the European Union.