Clare Nuttall in Belgrade
May 7, 2012
The Serbian Progressive Party had a narrow victory over the ruling Democratic Party on May 6, taking the largest share of parliament seats, while its candidate Tomislav Nikolić was narrowly beaten by former president Boris Tadić in the presidential election. The presidential vote is now set to go to a second round, pitting Nikolić against Tadić for the third time, while negotiations over a new parliament coalition are starting.
On election night, the air conditioning had long since given up under the sheer numbers of politicians, party activists and journalists crammed into the corridors of the Progressive Party's Belgrade headquarters. Despite the party's lead in the opinion polls since early March, its margin over the Democratic Party was not enough for comfort. Only after deputy leader Aleksandar Vučić announced preliminary results at around 10:45 pm, which with 44% of ballots counted put the Progressives in the lead with just under 23%, did tense party members break into smiles and high fives. "The SNS has definitely won the parliamentary election. We wish to form the next government, but that will be up to the presidential election, where we also expect victory," Vučić told journalists.
The initial announcement was borne out by later results, based on 78.8% of ballots counted early this morning, showing the Progressive Party was on 24.1%, giving it 73 of seats in the new parliament, ahead of the Democratic Party on 22.4%, which would give it 68 seats.
The presidential vote will go to a second round, as final results showed Tadić with 26.7% of the vote to Nikolic’s 25.5 %. Tadic, who is personally popular in Serbia, says he still expects to win the second round due to take place on May 20. Speaking to journalists in Belgrade late on May 6, he said he "intends to win, and will win", local news channel B92 reported. "We will discuss the next government after the second round, that will decide the path that Serbia will take for the next five years. We will not accept any blackmail or conditions," Tadic said.
The victory was a huge step for the Progressives, formed in 2008 when Nikolić and a handful of supporters split off from the Radical Party - which took no seats at all in the May 6 election. In just four years, the party has managed to attract a considerable following, not least because it promises a break from the past and vows to clean up corruption especially in the power sector.
Serbia has been struggling to maintain economic growth in recent years, and the country continues to lag behind most European countries in GDP per capita and living standards. Even the arrival of international investors in the country has not been enough to reduce unemployment, which reached 23.7% in 2011.
One of the key dividing lines in Serbian politics - the country's progression towards the EU - was less of an issue than previously during the current campaign. Along with Tadić's Democratic Party, which has long held a pro-EU stance, the Progressives and other main parties also now advocate EU membership for Serbia.
However, even with the Progressives' lead in the parliament, since no party has sufficient seats for an absolute majority, Serbia is heading for weeks - and possibly months - of negotiations on a new coalition government.
The Socialist Party - a more likely coalition partner for the left-of-centre Democratic Party - is currently in third place with 14.4% of the vote, or 44 seats. Other parties represented in the parliament are expected to be the Democratic Party of Serbia with 21 seats, the Liberal Democratic Party with 20 seats, United Regions of Serbia party with 15 and the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians with five. Three other minority parties are each set to take a single parliament seat.
Nikolić has already said that the Democratic Party of Serbia led by Vojislav Kostunica (not to be confused with Tadić's Democratic Party) would be its preferred coalition partner.
The main hope now is for a speedy decision on a new coalition that will allow a new government to be formed and to start tackling the economic issues that need to be addressed. "Whichever coalition will be formed, it will have a very tough task to rejuvenate the economy facing high employment rate (23.7%), low wages (average €359) and falling exports/industry. Public sector reform, IMF deal unfreeze and EU convergence remain key priorities," says a report from Raiffeisen Bank published before the election.
On the positive side, fears that tensions, particularly in Kosovo or Serbia's ethnically mixed south, could erupt into violence, have not been realised. Turnout across the country was around 60%, and the mood on the sunny election day in Belgrade was good, with Serbians stopping off to cast their votes as part of their Sunday promenade. No incidents were reported in the south, despite the arrest of five ethnic Albanians suspected of war crimes on May 4, just two days before the election. Meanwhile, in Kosovo - where just 32.17% of the 109,113 people eligible to take part in the Serbian elections cast their votes, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported there was not a single incident.