NY Times: With Vucic as president, Serbia is closer to autocracy

With Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic’s decisive victory in the presidential election on April 2, Serbia has edged closer to autocracy.

Though the presidency is largely ceremonial, Mr. Vucic can now handpick his successor as prime minister and consolidate his power, since Parliament and the judiciary are all but locked up by Mr. Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party. Having severely curtailed press freedom and marginalized political opposition, his concentration of power bodes ill for Serbian democracy.

Though Mr. Vucic won more than 50 percent of the vote, far surpassing the second-place candidate, Sasa Jankovic, who won a little over 16 percent, the election was marred by accusations of voter intimidation and a near total domination of Serbia’s media by Mr. Vucic and his party.

It speaks volumes about many Serbians’ cynicism that Luka Maksimovic, a 25-year-old student who ran — initially as a joke — under the pseudonym of Ljubisa “Beli” Preletacevic — a name that alludes to someone who switches political parties for personal gain — won 9 percent of the vote. But Serbians’ political disaffection goes beyond cynicism.

Every day since the election, thousands of protesters, mostly young, have turned out in the streets of Belgrade, blowing whistles and brandishing banners with slogans such as “Down with dictatorship” and “Vucic, you stole the election.” Mr. Vucic boasts that the fact that the government hasn’t cracked down on the protests “is a sign of democracy.” Given the hideous repression of public protest in many autocratic states, he has a point — or, perhaps he simply doesn’t view whistling students to be much of a threat now that the election is over.

In any case, Mr. Vucic could show a commitment to democracy by restoring freedom of the press, allowing access by the public to dissenting views and independent sources of information, and ordering an independent investigation of allegations of voter intimidation with a promise any involved will be punished.

European leaders who see in strongmen such as Mr. Vucic a force for stability — and who hope Mr. Vucic will make good on his promise to keep Serbia on track to join the European Union even as Russia’s influence in the Balkans grows — must avoid the temptation to look the other way as Mr. Vucic and his allies seize monopoly control over the country’s political institutions and its press.

To accede to such control by Mr. Vucic would be a betrayal of the European Union’s core values, and of the many Serbians who look to the European Union as a beacon of democratic rights and freedoms at a time when Eastern and Central European leaders are turning their backs on democracy.

(The New York Times, 09.04.2017)


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