Promises of reform and recovery give rise to hope in Serbian polls

By Guy De Launey
BBC News, Belgrade

Image source, AP
Image caption,
The smeared placards of populist leader Aleksandar Vucic (left) and former president Boris Tadic, reflecting widespread disappointment with politicians in the impoverished Balkan country

Serbians are heading back to the polls for the second time in less than two years - as the Progressive Party looks to consolidate its power and place its leader, Aleksandar Vucic, in the prime minister's office.

At the same time, the long-time party of government, the Democratic Party, is in turmoil.

Its ex-leader - and former president of Serbia - Boris Tadic has quit to form his own political movement, which threatens to split the opposition vote.

It means that for the first time in the country's short democratic era, one party may take an overall majority in parliament.

Sweet redemption?

That would leave Aleksandar Vucic with a clear mandate to institute what he says are much-needed reforms to lift Serbia out of an economic crisis that has left almost one in three people unemployed.

It would be quite the story of redemption for Mr Vucic. In the 1990s he was information minister in a disastrous ultra-nationalist regime that left Serbia a pariah state, with much of its infrastructure destroyed following a Nato bombing campaign.

When the autocratic president Slobodan Milosevic was ousted at the turn of the century, it could have been the end for Mr Vucic's hopes of returning to government.

Two unsuccessful campaigns to become mayor of Belgrade seemed to confirm this.

But the formation of the Progressive Party in 2008 was the catalyst for a change of fortune.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Aleksandar Vucic (centre) admits to mistakes being made when he was information minister in the 1990s

Along with the other founders, Mr Vucic renounced his former ultra-nationalist views, and adopted a pro-European Union stance.

"We all made some terrible mistakes and I'm not ashamed to confess that," Mr Vucic told the BBC last year.

"We needed to change our aims, and our unsuccessful and harmful politics."

Poll ratings

Since becoming the majority partner in a governing coalition two years ago, the Progressives appear to have lived up to that commitment.

Serbia has agreed to normalise relations with Kosovo, and EU accession talks finally got underway in January after years of delay.

The party leaders say they have earned the trust of the voters, and expect to be rewarded at the polls.

Image caption,
Marko Blagojevic, of the Centre for Free Elections and Democracy, does not think there will be a return to 1990s-style autocracy in Serbia

"We didn't promise too much - but what we promised we have done," says the Progressives' vice-president, Nebojsa Stefanovic.

"Other parties had a lot of time to do these reforms. They had many years in government - but they didn't do enough for the people. We have offered results and proven to be trustworthy partners of the citizens."

The Progressives chose to call the election while they were performing strongly in opinion polls. At the same time the main opposition, the Democratic Party, is in disarray.

Already rating weakly in the polls following the 2012 election, they have fallen further following the decision of Boris Tadic to form his own "New Democratic Party" just weeks before the vote.

The remaining Democratic Party members - under their leader and former Belgrade Mayor Dragan Djilas - suggest this was part of a Progressive Party conspiracy to split the opposition vote.

And they warn that if Mr Vucic gains an overall majority in parliament, the country will suffer.

"We are in jeopardy of this becoming a personal regime of Vucic," says the Democratic Party's parliamentary leader, Borislav Stefanovic.

"The whole country is mesmerised by this super-guy who controls all the media and decides, literally, on everything. What we're facing now is a one-man regime which is a mixture of populism, control over the media and old nationalism - saying no to some of the things our European friends are asking of us."

Indeed, opposition parties have labelled Mr Vucic "Superman" - and it is not meant as a compliment but as a suggestion that his party is a one-man show, with a single person trying to rescue everything and everyone.

Marko Blagojevic of the Centre for Free Elections and Democracy agrees that the Progressives appear to be short on talent in-depth. But he chuckles at the idea of a return to 1990s-style autocracy.

"The country has changed mainly due to the fact that people have changed. In a changed environment I do not believe it is possible to re-establish a dictatorship of the sort that we had in the 1990s."

Whatever the result of the election, the new government will have a lot on its plate. Quite apart from sorting out the economy, the normalisation negotiations with Kosovo are still going on - and the EU accession process will demand a great deal of attention and stamina.

It may be a testing time for both the government - and Serbia's people.