• Associated Press

Serbia’s Populists Claim a Sweeping Victory in the Country’s Parliamentary Election

AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic celebrates in his party headquarters after a parliamentary and local election in Belgrade, Serbia, Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023.

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia’s governing populists claimed a sweeping victory Sunday in the country’s parliamentary election, which was marred by reports of major irregularities both during a tense campaign and on voting day.

Acting Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said that with half the ballots counted, the governing Serbian Progressive Party’s projections showed it won 47% percent of the vote and expected to hold around 130 seats in the 250-member assembly. The main opposition Serbia Against Violence group won around 23%, Brnabic said.

The main contest in the parliamentary and local elections was between President Aleksandar Vucic’s Serbian Progressives and the centrist coalition that sought to undermine the populists who have ruled the troubled Balkan state since 2012.

The Serbia Against Violence opposition coalition was expected to mount its biggest challenge for the city council in Belgrade, with analysts saying an opposition victory in the capital would seriously dent Vucic’s hardline rule in the country.

Vucic, however, said his party was also leading in the vote in the capital, though he added that post-election coalition negotiations would determine who governs in Belgrade.

“This is an absolute victory which makes me extremely happy,” a jubilant Vucic said at his party’s headquarters in Belgrade. “We know what we have achieved in the previous period and how tough a period lies ahead.”

The main opposition group disputed the election projections from the governing party, claiming there was vote-rigging and saying it would dispute the vote count “by all democratic means.”

“People who do not live in Belgrade were brought in buses, vans and cars to vote as if they were citizens of Belgrade,” opposition leader Miroslav Aleksic said, also charging that 40,000 identity documents were issued for people who do not live in the capital.

“We will use all available democratic means against the vote rigging in Belgrade and Serbia,” he said. “What happened today cannot be something we can accept as the result of a democratic and fair election.”

Turnout one hour before the polls closed was around 55%, about the same as during the last election in 2022 when Vucic scored a landslide victory. First official results are expected Monday.

Irregularities were reported by election monitors and independent media. One report alleged ethnic Serbs from neighboring Bosnia gathered to vote at a sports hall in Belgrade that wasn’t an official polling station. Another report said a monitoring team was attacked and their car was bashed with baseball bats in a town in northern Serbia.

Observers from the independent Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability expressed “the highest concern” over cases of the organized transfer of illegal voters from other countries to Belgrade, the group said in a statement.

“The concentration of buses, minivans and cars was observed on several spots in Belgrade, transferring voters to polling stations across the city to vote,” the group said.

CRTA also reported cases of voters being given money to vote for the governing party and the presence of unauthorized people at polling stations.

Authorities disputed that there was any wrongdoing. Brnabic, the premier, called the accusations “lies that are intended to spread panic.”

Several right-wing groups, including pro-Russia parties and Socialists allied with Vucic, ran candidates for parliament and local councils in around 60 cities and towns as well as regional authorities in the northern Vojvodina province.

The election didn’t include the presidency, but governing authorities backed by dominant pro-government media ran the campaign as a referendum on Vucic.

Although he wasn’t formally on the ballot, the Serbian president campaigned relentlessly for the SNS, which appeared on the ballot under the name “Aleksandar Vucic — Serbia must not stop!”

Serbia Against Violence, a pro-European Union bloc, includes parties that were behind months of street protests this year triggered by two back-to-back mass shootings in May.

The Serbian president toured the country and attended his party’s rallies, promising new roads, hospitals, one-off cash bonuses and higher salaries and pensions. Vucic’s image was on billboards all over the country, though he had stepped down as SNS party leader.

Serbia, a Balkan country that has maintained warm relations with Russia and President Vladimir Putin, has been a candidate for European Union membership since 2014, but has faced allegations of steadily eroding democratic freedoms and rules over the past years.

Both Vucic and the SNS denied allegations of campaign abuse and attempted vote-rigging as well as charges that Vucic as president violated the constitution by campaigning for one party.

Vucic called the Dec. 17 early vote only a year and a half after a previous parliamentary and presidential election, although his party holds a comfortable majority in parliament.

Analysts said Vucic is seeking to consolidate power after the two back-to-back shootings triggered months of anti-government protests, and as high inflation and rampant corruption fuel public discontent. Vucic has also faced criticism over his handling of a crisis in Kosovo, a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008, a move that Belgrade doesn’t recognize.

His supporters view Vucic as the only leader who can maintain stability and lead the country into a better future.

“I think it’s time that Serbia goes forward with full steam,” retiree Lazar Mitrovic said after he voted. “That means that it should focus on its youth, on young people, education and of course discipline.”