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Serbia’s prime minister just became president. What’s wrong with this picture?

- April 4, 2017
Presidential candidate and Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, center, celebrates his victory on Sunday, in Belgrade, Serbia. Vucic claimed nearly 55 percent of the vote, above the 50 percent threshold required to win in the first round. (Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)

On Sunday, Serbians chose a new president — electing Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic with an estimated 54.9 percent majority.

Why would Serbia’s prime minister shift gears to seek the more ceremonial position of president of the Republic of Serbia? The move reflects an ongoing effort to solidify the position of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). It may also be a sign of Serbia’s turn toward an “illiberal” democracy — a political system marked by free and fair elections, but where rule of law, separation of powers, media freedom and other types of liberties are undermined.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/03/25/happy-60th-anniversary-to-the-european-union-okay-maybe-not-so-happy/?utm_term=.e2c61574fd69″]Happy 60th anniversary to the European Union (okay maybe not so happy)[/interstitial_link]

In an article published before the 2016 Serbian parliamentary elections, the third in just four years, we wrote that Prime Minister Vucic called for new elections in an attempt to extend his mandate until 2020, but also boost the SNS performance in the concurrent local elections. The SNS-led electoral coalition won 52.4 percent of the seats last year and was able to form a majority coalition government, eventually.

It took 109 days to form that government, however, largely out of Vucic’s concerns that the SNS would be defeated in the 2017 presidential elections. We predicted that Vucic would put himself forward as the party’s presidential candidate — despite his continuous denials.

We were right — after several months mulling it over, Vucic finally “accepted” his party’s offer to run for president in Sunday’s election.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/04/22/there-are-4-reasons-countries-dissolve-their-parliaments-heres-why-serbia-did/?utm_term=.d111fd5640ca”]There are 4 reasons countries dissolve their parliaments. Here’s why Serbia did[/interstitial_link]

Here’s why Vucic ran for president

So what would lead Vucic to leave the assured — and more powerful — position of prime minister in a majority government, barely a year after his last electoral victory, and run for president of the Republic of Serbia? Here are four reasons:

1) The SNS could not afford to lose the presidency

Approval ratings in February for President Tomislav Nikolic were not very promising, and the SNS had no other credible and recognizable candidate to run in his place — other than Vucic. Despite the exceptionally good results obtained in last year’s elections, the SNS feared losing the April presidential election. And this was something Vucic could ill afford, as an SNS loss might strengthen what is a currently a weak opposition, but also decrease Vucic’s profile within the media, calling into question the strength and sustainability of his own government.

2) Then the unexpected happened — there was new competition

Initially the SNS did not have much to worry about, given the opposition’s failure to unite around a single candidate. Then two new presidential candidates emerged: former ombudsman Sasa Jankovic, and the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vuk Jeremic. Once these two very popular figures announced their intention to run for president, Vucic had no choice but to join the race. These two candidates, together with Ljubisa Preletacevic Beli, a satirist who decided to become a candidate after the opposition failed to unite, claimed about 31 percent of the vote, even with Vucic in the race.

 3) Very little will change for the SNS — or Vucic’s influence

Despite his new title, Vucic may see little significant change in terms of his capacity to influence policy or exert power. This is because Serbia’s proportional (closed-list) electoral system gives the party leadership enormous power to select who serves in parliament.

Thus, as the leader of the SNS, President Vucic will control who will succeed him as prime minister, the composition of the next Serbian government and the whole SNS-led parliamentary caucus. This kind of an arrangement is not completely new to Serbian politics.

There’s a precedent, in fact — during Boris Tadic’s second term as president, from 2008 to 2012, he led the Democratic Party, Serbia’s largest party at the time. Tadic appointed Mirko Cvetkovic, a nonpartisan politician, to formally lead the cabinet, but kept the real power in his own hands.

We can expect a similar leadership scenario now. Vucic will certainly not repeat his predecessor’s mistake — when elected Serbia’s president in 2012, Nikolic decided to renounce his position as leader of the SNS.

4) The temptation of “illiberal democracy”

Most opinion polls predicted Vucic to win in the first round — and he did. Given the commanding victory, the only questions that remains are who will become the new prime minister, and what will be the composition of the new government.

While Vucic will continue to guide policymaking in Serbia, he will certainly select a prime minister who is completely loyal to him, so he can continue to exert political power.

Unfortunately, this raises questions about the legitimacy of the new government, given that it was Vucic whom the Serbian voters “elected” as prime minister barely a year ago. There’s a risk that Vucic’s move could also lead to the collapse (once more) of the country’s institutional system.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/01/23/this-is-what-the-gradual-erosion-of-rule-of-law-looks-like-in-poland/?utm_term=.6c9b283bc8ac”]This is what the gradual erosion of rule of law looks like in Poland[/interstitial_link]

Here’s the reason: Contrary to the Serbian Constitution, the power to create and operate policies will be in the hands of the president rather than the prime minister and his/her government. This wouldn’t be unique in Europe. Other examples include Putin (and Mevdevev) in Russia, or Kaczynski (and Marcinkiewicz) in Poland.

Vucic ran a particularly negative campaign, in a bid to discredit all the main opposition candidates. He asked the speaker to suspend parliament until after the elections, a move that angered the opposition parties. These moves, together with his absolute dominance over the media — which raise alarm bells in European institutions — are clear markers that Serbia might end up following the path of other illiberal European democracies.

Boban Stojanović is a PhD candidate at the University of Belgrade. Fernando Casal Bértoa is an assistant professor at the University of Nottingham in Britain.