Polls Close In Serbia Election; Vucic's Ruling Party Expected To Hold Power
By RFE/RL's Balkan Service June 21, 2020
BELGRADE– Polls closed in Serbia amid a lackluster turnout for a parliamentary election that was expected to tighten the grip on power for President Aleksandar Vucic's ruling party.
The June 21 vote -- Europe's first national election since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered most of the continent– saw calls for a boycott ahead of time from an alliance of opposition groups, citing the virus and what it said were unfair conditions.
Pre-election opinion polls showed that Vucic's center-right conservative ruling Serbian Progressive Party, which has led the Balkan state for the past eight years, was expected to secure nearly 60 percent of the vote.
Vucic's coalition partner, the Socialist Party, was predicted to come in second at around 10 percent.
Several right-wing and liberal parties may make it over a 3 percent threshold to enter the 250-seat parliament but are unlikely to provide checks on the ruling party. Some smaller parties are widely believed to be close to the government or controlled by it.
Polling organizers ordered protective measures at more than 8,000 voting stations in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Face masks and hand sanitizers were widely distributed, and voters were urged to respect physical distancing.
Still, many Serbs were expected to skip voting -- partly due to fears of becoming infected.
By early evening, just 41 percent of the country's 6.6 million eligible voters had cast ballots, according to election officials.
"I don't expect anything in particular" from the vote," one Belgrade voter, who gave only his first name, Ivan, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "The most important thing is that the people should live better."
Several liberal and right-wing opposition parties under the banner of the Alliance for Serbia called for a boycott, citing what they say is an unfair playing field exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Before the boycott, the alliance polled around 10 percent.
The pandemic has boosted Vucic's popularity, given the relatively few deaths until now and state handouts to soften its economic impact.
According to Johns Hopkins University's global tally of coronavirus cases, Serbia had about 12,000 confirmed cases as of June 21, and just 260 deaths.
"I am very pleased that there were no serious irregularities until noon today, that the elections are being held in a democratic atmosphere, that there are fewer incidents than ever in the multi-party democracy in Serbia," Vucic said after casting his vote.
Restrictions during the state of emergency – which interrupted more than a year of weekly pro-democracy protests -- have hampered opposition campaigning.
Opposition groups also accuse Vucic, who is not himself up for re-election, of using his position as president to promote his party and exerting complete control over the media.
He said the opposition boycott was unlikely to achieve its purpose.
In May, the U.S.-based Freedom House said it no longer considers Serbia a democracy "after years of increasing state capture, abuse of power, and strongman tactics" by Vucic.
The democracy watchdog said in its annual report for 2020 that since the SNS came to power in 2012 it "has steadily eroded political rights and civil liberties, putting pressure on independent media, the political opposition, and civil society organizations."
Geopolitics In The Spotlight
The new mandate Vucic is expected to win comes amid intensified international efforts to restart dialogue with Kosovo, an ethnic Albanian province whose independence Belgrade does not recognize.
NATO launched a bombing campaign to force Serbian troops out of Kosovo, and in 2008, Kosovo declared independence. Belgrade, Moscow, and a handful of European Union member states refuse to recognize the declaration.
Richard Grenell, the U.S. special envoy for Serbia and Kosovo negotiations, last week said he had received commitments from both Vucic and his Kosovo counterpart, Hashim Thaci, to meet at the White House on June 27.
The White House meeting "opens the door to new economic development and investment'' to pave the way for a political solution, Grenell said.
Three days before the planned White House meeting, Vucic was scheduled to travel to Moscow to meet President Vladimir Putin.
Serbia has sought European Union membership for years, but talks with the bloc stalled in 2018. Its membership bid is contingent on settling its disputes with Kosovo.
Nearly 3,500 observers were monitoring the vote, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and, for the first time, the European Network of Election Monitoring Organizations.
With reporting by Chase Winter, AFP, AP, and Reuters
Copyright (c) 2020. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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