How the opposition destroyed itself

text by Bogdan Petrovic, published on Nova Ekonomija 

No more room for doubt, a consensus has been reached among the majority of the, we can freely say former, coalition of ‘Serbia Against Violence’ and the authorities that alongside the local elections in Belgrade, all the remaining local elections will be held on June 2nd as well. This has been formalised by a joint signing of a proposal to reform local election law, which merely cosmetically changes the deadlines for calling and holding elections.

And that would more or less be all that the opposition has specifically achieved, despite the declarative statements of the chief negotiator and the president of the parliament, Ana Brnabić, that the other demands of the opposition have been met. These promises likely mean we will have yet another unenforced law, as there’s simply not enough time for any serious scrutiny or revision of the electoral register, even if we had a complete consensus and willingness among all political entities. It’s hard to believe that the opposition will be granted even remotely equal access to national frequency media during the pre-election campaign, let alone access outside of the campaign. 

The impression is that the opposition has achieved much less than it objectively could have. It is obvious that the government wanted the opposition to participate in the local elections, intending to use the election process with the opposition participating to solidify its legitimacy which has been previously shaken by claims of ‘unprecedented electoral fraud’, as well as by the resolution of European Parliament unfavourable to the government. Another fact that suits the opposition equally is that the government allowed Western actors to meddle in the electoral process; this was best seen during the unannounced visit of EU and US ambassadors on one of the meetings between parties and Ana Brnabić, as well as the sudden arrival of the head of the OSCE in Belgrade.

Instead of seizing the political momentum that favoured them and making several easily understandable and verifiable demands to the authorities, the opposition insisted on a few general and difficult-to-verify demands. Some of these were even offered personally by Vučić, such as abolishing the possibility of signature certification in municipalities; this is how fake signatures supporting the so-called “phantom lists” are typically certified, which ultimately cost the opposition 2% in Belgrade, causing quite a stir (all phantom lists had signatures certified exclusively in municipalities!). The opposition also missed the opportunity to demand a reduction in the number of polling stations to decrease the number of monitors it needs to engage. Not only was this not highlighted in their demands, but the government increased the number of polling stations in Belgrade by 85 (8%), arguing that it was necessary to eliminate “crowding” at polling places.

During the “negotiations”, Ana Brnabić initially accepted the first two demands, but the snag cropped up when it was time to talk about the timing of the elections. Then the opposition came up with a demand that turned out to be a veritable coup: namely, the adoption of amendments to the Constitutional Law to annul the previously held local elections as well as the proposition to hold new ones in the fall, alongside those not yet held.

The government swiftly rejected that demand. Had it accepted it, it would have de facto admitted to electoral fraud, which was difficult to expect, at least without significant pressure from the protesters. Milošević, whom the opposition called out in justifying such a constitutional coup, agreed to the amendments to the Constitutional Law and the annulment of elections after months-long demonstrations that led to the OSCE mission.

For such a concession from the government, the opposition had to be fully prepared to boycott not only local elections but also parliament elections, as well as to convince Western actors about the legitimacy of this cause. There was no readiness for a firm boycott among all parties, nor did the proposal for a “constitutional coup,” submitted at the last minute when it was already too late, receive Western support.

Such a scenario suits the Progressives the most, and the electoral timing works in their favour too. Parties will only start collecting signatures and campaigning after the amendments to the law are passed in the Assembly. The campaign will de facto last no longer than a month due to the holidays being merged, and the opposition will evidently spend a good part of the campaign justifying their participation in the elections and defending themselves from attacks by parties boycotting as well as the media who support them. 

When opportunities are missed in politics, “punishment” is what usually follows. Pro-Western parties have splintered, and they will likely receive significantly fewer votes than they did last December, as nationalist-oriented parties have already experienced. It is, therefore, no wonder that the public is deeply disappointed in opposition parties, and there is hardly any enthusiasm for the upcoming elections, even though it is undeniable that Vučić and his “cronies” are gaining fewer votes from election to election. However, this is of little consolation when we know that a new opportunity will arise only in three and a half years unless Vučić makes a serious political mistake. That’s not excluded, unfortunately, as in today’s Serbia, he is his own greatest adversary.


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