Should democrats be worried by the election of Tomislav Nikolic, leader of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), to the country’s presidency?
The elevation of Nikolic (above right), known as “The Gravedigger” because he once managed municipal cemeteries, does not threaten to bury Serbian democracy, writes Daniel Serwer, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
“Alternation in power is an essential feature of truly democratic systems,” he writes for The National Interest. “It has now happened in Serbia for the first time since the fall of Milosevic. Europe and the United States should recognize in these elections a clear expression of the will of Serbia’s people.”
Nikolic’s victory has “electrified the country’s political elite,” The Economist notes:
Until his defeat of the incumbent Boris Tadic (above left), Serbia’s political future seemed clear. Now, says Braca Grubacic, a senior official in Mr Nikolic’s party, “everyone is talking to everyone, and most options are on the table.”
One option, according to the Serbian B92 news site is for Boris Tadic, the defeated Democratic Party candidate, to become prime minister, heading a coalition with the Socialist Party (SPS).
The Russian and Belarusian ambassadors were among the first to meet and congratulate Nikolic, prompting speculation that his presidency would usher in a stronger eastern orientation in Serbian foreign policy. That’s unlikely, according to Balkan Insight.
“Nikolic has never made any secret of his orientation towards countries in the Eastern part of Europe but since he was expelled from far right Radicals in 2008 and founded his own party, the Progressives, he has repositioned himself as being more EU-oriented and has made frequent well-publicised working visits to Brussels.”
The result might be seen less as a victory for Nikolic than as a defeat for Tadic, writes Eric Gordy.
“The main factor that made Tomislav Nikolic a more palatable option for voters [was] not that he has moved toward the DS but rather that the DS began doing the things people had been warned his own SNS might do,” says Gordy, a senior lecturer in southeast European studies at University College, London:
Bring the parties of the old regime back to power? Done. Rehabilitate and glorify war criminals? Done. Escalate tensions with neighboring states? Done. Undermine democratic institutions and the independence of the judiciary and civil service from political parties? Done. All the harm people had been warned to expect from Tomislav Nikolic had already been inflicted by Boris Tadic.
By preventing the DS and SPS from “entrenching a shared monopoly of power,” the election may in the long run be good for democracy, “but in the short run it is likely to mean that a weak president will face a discredited but determined parliamentary majority composed primarily of his opponents,” Gordy cautions:
The period immediately after the election will probably see repeated confrontation and evident instability. That period, however, may be brief – both because the new president will have a strong motivation to call new elections as soon as he sees an opportune moment to get a more compliant government, and because the parliamentary majority will do all it can to undermine the president. The new constellation of power in Serbia will be unstable, unpredictable and contradictory – but it will be replaceable, in ways that could lead to improvement.
International actors have a role in nudging Nikolic towards a more liberal and pluralist approach to politics and towards a pro-European foreign policy orientation.
“What Brussels and Washington need to do now is draw clear red lines that both can support wholeheartedly,” writes Serwer:
Once the new parliamentary majority is formed and the government appointed, they should ask Belgrade—which will seek a date to begin negotiations for European Union membership—to end its resistance to Kosovo’s independence, push the Bosnian Serbs toward full acceptance of the Sarajevo government and begin deep reform of the security services. There is no reason to coddle Nikolic, who in the past has proven himself pragmatic when faced with clear and forceful requirements.
SERBIA AFTER THE 2012 ELECTIONS Where is the nation headed?
Thursday, May 31, 2012. 10:00 to 11:30 a.m. 455 Massachusetts Ave., NW, 8th Floor, Washington, DC. (Please note address change)
Serbia’s general elections have ushered in a new chapter in its political transition to democracy. Opposition leader Tomislav Nikolic prevailed in Sunday’s presidential run-off election against incumbent Boris Tadic. Parliamentary and local elections also saw Nikolic’s Serbian Progressive Party garner more support, but Tadic’s Democratic Party, with the help of Ivica Dacic’s Socialist Party of Serbia, a strong third-place finisher, may form the next government.
NDI’s resident director Tom Kelly will sort through the elections—what happened during the campaign, what Serbia’s voters said at the ballot box, what kind of government to expect, and what the election results mean overall for Serbian politics and democracy, Belgrade’s relations with Kosovo and other neighbors, and the country’s EU aspirations.
Tom Kelly has directed NDI’s programs in Serbia since 2007 and is based in Belgrade. NDI has supported democratic reform in Serbia since 1997 and works with parliament, political parties, civil society organizations, and minority and marginalized populations. The Institute sponsored Serbia’s first televised candidate debates, including a run-off debate between Tadic and Nikolic. NDI’s program in Serbia is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
B92 is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group. NDI is one of the NED’s core institutes.