Parliamentary elections held in Serbia last weekend did not hold too many surprises for those familiar with recent political developments in the small Balkan republic. In an election originally announced for 26 April but postponed amid the coronavirus pandemic, Alaksandar Vučić’s populist right-wing Serbia Progressive Party (SNS) snatched over 60 percent of the vote and some 190 mandates in the 250-seat Skupština, the Serbian parliament.
The dominance of SNS is further underlined by the fact that virtually all real opposition parties dropped out of parliament regardless of parliamentary threshold cut down to 3 percent prior to the elections.
Ivica Dačić’s Socialist Party scoring second place with just over 10 percent of the vote functions more like a satellite organization in a permanent governing coalition with the SNS. Thus, the strongest and only opposition party in the Serbian parliament will be the novel formation of Aleksandar Šapić, barely scraping through the threshold.
Among the main reasons for the poor showing of the Serbian opposition is the nature and the character of the regime constructed by Vučić over the years. However, also the self-delusive tactics of the opposition parties to boycott the elections and its hopes to challenge an increasingly dictatorial system by means of passive resistance have proven vain.
The Serbian elections, including the misguided tactics of the opposition are replete with lessons that must be closely studied by those that want to see an end to illiberal political experimenting.
For years analysts have been drawing comparisons between the authoritarian system of Vučić and that of Viktor Orbán in its immediate neighbourhood, Hungary.
Considering the turbulent history of the region, the context in which Orbán and Vučić rose to power is different.
The hairpin bends along their political career to arrive at populist illiberalism are the first striking similarity: while Orbán started his political carrier as an ultra-liberal anti-Communist as a Soros-scholar, Vučić came on the scene as an aid to one of the great mass murderers of the late-20th century, Slobodan Milošević, serving as his propaganda minister. Like in Hungary, in Vučić’s Serbia party loyalty is the only key to success, media freedom curtailed, opposition parties threatened (in Serbia sometimes killed), corruption rampant, while an ever increasing mass of the young generations leave their homeland, either because it is not able to or willing to play by the rules of the regime. And just like Orbán, Vučić also turned his country into a favourite of foreign investors that consider stable political systems as a „one-stop shop” that dish out licences, state subsidies, keep labour costs low, labour laws flexible and trade unions under control. Finally, just like Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz, SNS is also a member of, albeit only associated, the European Peoples’ Party (EPP).
In years, the EPP could not resolve the dilemma of safeguarding democratic values by booting authoritarian Orbán from its ranks and retaining a politically successful member to retain its relative political influence. Hardly surprising that EPP and its president Donald Tusk was among the first to jubilantly congratulate Vučić after his re-election.
Hence, when it comes to drawing the necessary lessons from the Serbian elections, the first should be one that Central-Eastern European countries ought to have learned by now throughout their history: despite the talk about democratic values in Europe, business interests and geopolitical considerations prevail.
We can only count on ourselves in defence of democratic social progress.
This is why giving up without fighting and boycotting elections is not an option. Democratic opposition of every ideological sorts must unite in reinstituting rule of law and democratic pluralism in a region where illiberal populism highjacked our transition process half way through. The lessons must be learned quick and rehearsed well prior to critical elections approaching in other countries of the region.
If there is anything that all Europeans can be proud of regardless of their nationality, origin or identity, it is most certainly the rule of law, transparency, access to legal representation and equality before the law. We can be proud of how our continent has been governed by these principles for centuries and, even if an aggressive regime has occasionally been able to drag its country away from them, we could always find our way back to them eventually. On the other hand, there has always been another system lurking at the frontiers of Europe, ready to spread its untransparent and self-interested laws – let’s call it tribalism, clan mentality or mafia. Weak monarchs or governments have been known to give in to or at least co-exist with the mafia or the oligarchs but strong leaders and strong societies refused to tolerate them.
For a long time, we may have thought that the European Union was such a strong community since we have heard so much about its values and strict but fair laws. We Hungarians had long been hoping to become a member of this alliance because we thought that its norms and regulations would protect us once and for all from the backward forces that have regularly attempted to drive our Central European country to another, Asian road. In short, we thought we would be protected from the political mafia, the oligarchs, the obscure informal networks and the consequent vulnerability, weakness and general social deprivation.
Let us be clear at the outset: it is entirely unacceptable when a police officer kneels on the neck of a defenceless person until they suffocate. However, it is equally revolting when some take advantage of the tragedy of George Floyd and use it for their political purposes to annihilate opponents. Brutality of US police is a long overdue problem that roots deeply in American society. It did not start with the inauguration of Donald Trump as some would like to see it, and it is not only aimed at black people. It is undisputedly related to the ultraliberal right to keep and bear arms or the enormous social inequalities characteristic of the US.
Even critics of the European integration would concede to the argument that it has undisputedly contributed to an unprecedented era of reconciliation between hitherto hostile nation states.
Many factors played a part in reaching a consensus on the continent. The tragic common experience of horror and devastation on all sides in two subsequent world wars only partly explain the joint endeavour to build a European cooperation. Nothing ever was built on negation and negative experiences only. Creativity, goodwill, trust and vision are all necessary to construct a lasting mechanism. Without the cooperation and wisdom of a generation of like-minded political leaders, reigning in the Western hemisphere European integration could not have become reality.