By Ivana Sekularac and Aleksandar Vasovic
BELGRADE (Reuters) – Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has dropped in on ordinary Serbs in a folksy tour around the country to secure another term in power for his populist party in a snap election on Sunday largely prompted by public outrage over mass shootings.
After two shooting attacks in May that left 18 people dead including nine elementary school students and teenagers, street protests rattled Vucic and his Serbian Progressive Party’s more than decade-long grip on power in the West Balkan republic.
For weeks huge crowds backed by the centrist and liberal opposition marched through Belgrade demanding government action to counter a culture of violence they said authorities allowed to flourish in society, and snap elections before year’s end.
Opposition parties and rights watchdogs also accuse Vucic and the SNS of stifling media freedoms, supporting violence against opponents, corruption, and ties with organised crime. Vucic and his allies deny such allegations.
The Dec. 17 parliamentary election – the fifth since 2012, combined with simultaneous voting in most municipalities including the capital Belgrade and in the northern province of Vojvodina – comes only 18 months after the previous one.
During the campaign, Vucic, whose presidential term expires in 2027, drove to the north of Serbia in his own Skoda car rather than in a swish government limousine, to check the quality of various roadworks.
In other trips throughout the country, he helped farmers cook pork scratchings, flipped pancakes, opened a Tiktok account, gave an interview to a major opposition weekly and visited a monastery – all in an effort to shore up his party’s popularity after the backlash over the shootings.
“The state is not a joke, and it cannot be run by irresponsible people,” Vucic, 53 – originally a far-right nationalist who later shifted towards a pro-European, conservative stance – said in a video published on his Instagram account, referring to political foes.
In the months ahead of elections, the outgoing government disbursed one-off payments to students, pensioners and single mothers, and announced a rise in wages and pensions in parts of the public sector.
SNS WELL AHEAD IN PRE-ELECTION POLL
Radomir Lazovic, a leader of the Serbia Against Violence opposition alliance, accused the SNS of pressuring and bribing voters.
“There is a huge opportunity for things to change. People have realized that the SNS, even after such a tragic (shooting) event, was not ready to change anything,” Lazovic told Reuters.
A recent pre-election poll by the Nova Srpska Politicka Misao website put the SNS in the lead with 39.8% of the vote, with Lazovic’s coalition next on 25.6% and the Socialist Party of outgoing Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, an SNS coalition partner, with 8.9%.
After the two mass shootings and in line with previous pledges, Vucic quit as chairman of the SNS, handing the post to Milos Vucevic, his closest ally and the outgoing defence minister, but he retains decisive control over party policies.
“Major political changes at the republic level are not realistic, and a significant change of government would be a surprise,” said Bojan Klacar, executive director of the CESID polling organisation.
But he said the SNS might lose power in Belgrade’s municipal election – a serious blow as the capital of 1.4 million people represents about a quarter of the electorate, and the mayor is regarded as one of the most influential officials in Serbia.
Serbia aims to join the European Union but a major precondition is normalising relations with Kosovo, its former predominantly Albanian province that declared independence in 2008 after a late 1990s guerrilla uprising. EU-brokered talks to that end are stalled and tensions continue to run high.
Belgrade must also crack down on corruption and organised crime, liberalise the economy and align its foreign policies with those of the EU, including sanctions against Russia – a traditional ally of Belgrade – over its invasion of Ukraine.
Dragan Stankovic, 67, a Belgrade pensioner, said he would vote for the SNS as the status quo was safer. “(I expect) it to go on like this. Nothing else. It is sufficient to stay (as we are).”
But Milos Lazovic, 24, a student who attended the final opposition rally in Belgrade, said a vote to oust the SNS “is a better option… Maybe they (opposition) will provide some fresh perspectives and give young people without party affiliations some fresh opportunities and jobs”.
(Reporting by Ivana Sekularac and Aleksandar Vasovic)