Activist state

Serbia holds tense vote; the populist government will not sanction Russia

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A woman wearing a face mask to protect against the coronavirus, prepares to vote at a polling station in Belgrade, Serbia, Sunday, April 3, 2022. Voters in Serbia voted on Sunday in a triple election likely to maintain in power a populist government in the Balkan country which has refused to impose sanctions on Russia for the war in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

PA

Opposition allegations of widespread irregularities marked Serbia’s national elections on Sunday in which President Aleksandar Vucic and his ruling populists hope to extend their 10-year grip on power in the Balkan state.

Some 6.5 million voters had the right to choose the country’s president and a new parliament, and elections were also held for local authorities in the capital, Belgrade, and more than a dozen other towns and cities. municipalities. Turnout was reported at around 55% an hour before the polls closed, higher than in most Serbian elections.

Opinion polls ahead of the vote predicted Vucic would win another five-year term and his right-wing Serbian Progressive Party would once again dominate the 250-member assembly. But opposition groups had a chance to win in Belgrade, analysts said, which would deal a serious blow to Vucic’s increasingly autocratic rule.

Opposition groups said on Sunday that multiple irregularities were spotted during the vote. Opposition election monitors have reported widespread ghost voting – voting under the names of people who are dead or who don’t exist – as well as ruling party activists offering money in exchange for votes.

An opposition leader was attacked outside Vucic’s party offices in a Belgrade suburb, suffering facial injuries. A ruling party official was reportedly assaulted in the central city of Nis.

Vucic, a former ultranationalist who has boasted of his close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, has sought to cast himself as a guarantor of stability amid turmoil raging in Europe due to the invasion of the Ukraine by Russia. Speaking after the vote in Belgrade, Vucic said he expected Serbia to continue on the path of “stability, tranquility and peace”.

“I believe in a meaningful and compelling win and I believe everyone will get what they deserve,” he said.

In a country that weathered a series of wars in the 1990s and a NATO bombing in 1999, fears of a spillover from the conflict played into Vucic’s hands. Although Serbia is officially seeking entry into the 27-nation European Union, Vucic has maintained close ties with Russia and China, counting on Serb resentment towards the West over NATO’s air war in 1999.

Serbia backed a UN resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but Belgrade did not join Western sanctions against Moscow, a historic Slavic ally.

Beleaguered opposition groups have also mostly refrained from publicly advocating a tougher line on Moscow. Russia has backed Serbia’s claim to Kosovo, a former province that declared independence backed by the West in 2008.

After boycotting Serbia’s previous vote in 2020, major opposition parties said Sunday’s vote was also far from free and fair due to Vucic’s dominance over mainstream media and government institutions. the state.

Vucic’s main opponent in the presidential election comes from a centrist-conservative coalition, United for the victory of Serbia, which brings together the main opposition parties. General Zdravko Ponos, a Western-educated former army chief of staff, hopes to push Vucic to a presidential runoff.

“These elections will (bring) serious changes to Serbia,” Ponos said after casting his vote. “I hope the citizens of Serbia will take (a) chance today.”

Ahead of the vote, there were reports of ballots being sent to addresses for people who don’t live there, prompting the opposition to warn of potential fraud. But populists in power in Serbia have denied manipulating ballots or pressuring voters.

Their position in the capital is inferior to that of the rest of the country, partly due to a number of corruption-ridden construction projects that have devastated Belgrade’s urban core.

A left-wing green coalition, Moramo, or We Must, is contesting the elections for the first time, campaigning on discontent in Belgrade and anger over Serbia’s many environmental problems. The group has drawn thousands to protests against lithium mining in Serbia and to demand cleaner air, rivers and land.

Since his party came to power in 2012, Vucic has served as defense minister, prime minister and president.

On the eve of the election, some voters in Belgrade said they would like to see a change, at least in the capital. Others were skeptical of the possibility.

“Honestly, I don’t think the opposition has a chance,” said Belgrade resident Srdjan Kovacevic.

Predrag Rebic said he also expects the central government and the president of Serbia to remain the same.

“The mayor (of Belgrade) will change, that’s what I expect,” he said.