Serbs vote in triple election set to keep populists in power

A woman wearing a face mask to protect against coronavirus,prepares to vote at a polling station in Belgrade on Sunday.

BELGRADE (AP) — Voters in Serbia cast ballots Sunday in a triple election likely to keep in power a populist government in the Balkan country that has refused to impose sanctions on Russia over the war in Ukraine.

Some 6.5 million voters are choosing the president, a new parliament and local authorities in the capital, Belgrade, and over a dozen other towns and municipalities.

Opinion surveys ahead of the vote have predicted that President Aleksandar Vucic will win another five-year term and that his right-wing Serbian Progressive Party will yet again dominate the 250-member assembly.

But opposition groups stand a chance to win the majority in Belgrade, analysts say. This would deal a serious blow to the populists’ decade-old unchallenged rule in Serbia.

Vucic, a former ultranationalist who has boasted of close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has sought to portray himself as a guarantor of stability amid the turmoil raging in Europe.

After voting in Belgrade, Vucic said he expected Serbia to continue on the path of “stability, tranquility and peace.”

I believe in a significant and convincing victory and I believe everyone will get what they deserve, according to how much they worked and, understandably, in accordance with the expectations of the citizens for the future, he said.

In a country that went through a series of wars in the 1990s and a NATO bombing in 1999, fears of a conflict spilling over have played into Vucic’s hands.

Though Serbia is formally seeking European Union entry, Vucic has fostered close ties with Russia and China, counting on the Serbs’ resentment of the West over the NATO air war.

Serbia has supported a U.N. resolution that condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but Belgrade has not joined the sanctions against Moscow, a historic Slavic ally.

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

After boycotting the previous vote in 2020, main opposition parties have said this vote is also far from free and fair because of Vucic’s domination over the mainstream media and the state institutions.

Vucic’s main opponent in the presidential election comes from a centrist-conservative coalition, United for Victory of Serbia, which comprises the main opposition parties.

Gen. Zdravko Ponos, a Western-educated former army chief of staff, is hoping to push Vucic into a second round in the presidential ballot.

These elections are going to (bring) serious change in Serbia, Ponos said after casting his ballot. “I hope citizens of Serbia are going to take (a) chance today.”

In the runup to the vote, reports have emerged of ballots being sent to addresses for people who don’t live there, prompting opposition warnings of potential fraud.

Ruling populists have denied manipulating ballots or pressuring voters.

Their standing in the capital has been lower than the rest of the country due partly to a number of corruption-plagued construction projects that have devastated the city’s urban core.

A green-left coalition, Moramo, or We Must, is running in the election for the first time, campaigning on the discontent in Belgrade and on anger over Serbia’s numerous environmental problems.

The group has drawn thousands of people 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 city. Others were skeptical that this was possible.

Honestly, I think the opposition stands no chance, said Srdjan Kovacevic, a resident of Belgrade.

Predrag Rebic said he too expects the central government and the president to remain the same.

The [Belgrade] mayor will change, that’s what I expect, he said.