Serbians are headed to the polls, again. On Sunday, Serbian citizens will be voting for the tenth time since the reestablishment of a multi-party system in 1990. Only two elections (in 1997 and 2012) actually took place at the end of the normal four-year legislative cycle.
In March, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić dissolved parliament, calling for early elections after the government said it needed “stability and a strong mandate” to pursue the difficult economic reforms needed to join the European Union.
Why are early elections the norm in Serbia? Our research shows there are four main reasons countries opt for early elections:
1. Something big happened
Early elections often take place when there is a national crisis, be it economic or political. In fact, most early elections in Serbia resulted from political crises: the disintegration of the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992, war in Bosnia and Croatia in 1993, the fall of Slobodan Milošević’s regime in 2000, Djindjić’s assassination in 2003, the secession of Montenegro in 2006, and the independence of Kosovo in 2008.
2. It’s impossible to hold on any longer
Loss of support within the legislature can bring about the dissolution of parliament. More often than not, early elections reflect minority cabinets, or weak and fragile majority governments that lose their parliamentary majority.
Yet Serbia’s majority is strong. In 2014, “The Future We Believe In” electoral coalition, led by Aleksandar Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and formed by the Social Democratic Party (SDPS), the Movement of Socialist (PS), the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) and New Serbia (NS), won the legislative elections with more than 48.4 per cent of the votes and 158 seats — 63.2 percent of the total seats. Despite this clear parliamentary majority, Vučić invited the runner-up Socialist Party (SPS), Milošević’s former party, to form a surplus majority government, with 202 out of 250 total parliamentary seats.
3. We did it!
A third but less common reason to go to the polls early is when a government — usually a broad-brush coalition — thinks it has completely fulfilled the electoral program presented in the previous election. So the government seeks a new legislative mandate based on a totally new program.
That’s also not the case in Serbia. Vučić hoped to use his strong parliamentary majority to reduce salaries and pensions, downsize the public sector and launch other ambitious reforms. Another goal was constitutional changes — a working group met to look at electoral reforms, including reducing the number of seats in parliament, but did not approve these changes. Instead, the two-year Vučić government implemented none of the promised economic and political reforms. There were two successful changes: the E.U.-brokered “landmark” deal with Kosovo to improve the bilateral relationship; and an International Monetary Fund agreement, following Serbia’s completion of the first steps in economic reform.
4. Renegotiating the social contract
If none of the first three scenarios apply, prime ministers may opt for pre-term elections to prolong their mandate while the country’s economic or political situation is still positive, even if they haven’t fulfilled their electoral program. The government is banking that its high popularity — and the lack of a strong opposition — will boost its power base, extending the regime’s hold far into the future.
Is that the story in Serbia? In our view, Vučić’s main goal now is simply to get reelected, and cement a new mandate through 2020. Serbia’s economic growth is stagnant at 0.8 percent, the second slowest in the region after Croatia — and public debt (currently at 75.5 percent of the GDP) is growing. But the country is stable, with no major social conflicts or political protests. In fact, according to the latest public opinion polls in March, around 52.6 percent of the electorate support Vučić’s SNS party.
Vučić has never been in a better position to achieve this goal. Serbia’s political opposition has been rocked by a number of corruption scandals, allegations of misuse of power, and criticism of its previous inability to fulfill its electoral promises. Serbia’s electoral rules require parties to win five percent of the vote to get a seat in parliament. But the Democratic party (DS) is the only opposition party likely to pass this threshold. The DS won barely won six percent of the vote in the 2014 elections.
By holding parliamentary elections together with regional and local elections on April 24, Vučić has ensured that the campaign will revolve around national issues and general topics, without much real debate on regional or local policies. With Vučić’s own approval rates very high at the moment, his SNS party has even more chance of better results at the regional and local level.
There’s another reason to move quickly. The Serbian government has imposed tight controls over both public and private media organizations, and Vučić has been criticized for his tough media stance. The E.U. also expressed concerns about the attacks on media freedom in its “Serbia 2015” report. Moving ahead on the elections, before there’s a possible backlash among the voting population on the issue of press freedom, might make sense.
So, like a sports star, Vučić may simply be renegotiating his “contract” — and looking to cash in on his popularity, while it lasts.