Aleksandar Vucic’s Pyrrhic Victory

The Serbian president’s anti-Western propaganda is coming back to haunt him.

By , the coordinator of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group and the Jean Monnet chair in the Europeanization of Southeastern Europe at the University of Graz, Austria, and , the Europe’s Futures fellow of the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna and a member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG).
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic addresses the public in Belgrade, on Apr. 3.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic addresses the public in Belgrade, on Apr. 3.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic addresses the public in Belgrade, on Apr. 3. ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP via Getty Images

Ahead of a double opportunity to oust two of Europe’s autocrats in Hungary and Serbia, a significant number of pundits predicted a victory for the opposition in Hungary. It didn’t happen.

Rather, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party triumphed with 53 percent of the vote. The opposition alliance got 35 percent. Fidesz has also secured 88 of 106 single-member constituencies.

Superficially, the situation in Serbia looks similar, but it is in fact very different. The incumbent, President Aleksandar Vucic, has managed to secure another term in office, winning nearly 60 percent of the presidential vote in the first round of the election, but this is the only good news emerging from the country’s vote, which also included parliamentary elections and local elections in the capital, Belgrade.

Ahead of a double opportunity to oust two of Europe’s autocrats in Hungary and Serbia, a significant number of pundits predicted a victory for the opposition in Hungary. It didn’t happen.

Rather, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party triumphed with 53 percent of the vote. The opposition alliance got 35 percent. Fidesz has also secured 88 of 106 single-member constituencies.

Superficially, the situation in Serbia looks similar, but it is in fact very different. The incumbent, President Aleksandar Vucic, has managed to secure another term in office, winning nearly 60 percent of the presidential vote in the first round of the election, but this is the only good news emerging from the country’s vote, which also included parliamentary elections and local elections in the capital, Belgrade.

While Vucic was poised to win due to his stranglehold over media and state institutions, the victory was helped by the war in Ukraine, which allowed him to cultivate his image of a cautious statesman standing above the fray. But Vucic’s desire to appear statesman-like and maintain control of parliament could be undermined by the strong pro-Russia and anti-Western resentments in Serbian society that he himself has encouraged.


According to Serbia’s electoral commission, Vucic’s coalition has won only 43 percent of the parliamentary vote (approximately 120 seats, or six less than needed to form a parliamentary majority). His former coalition partners, the Socialists, won a surprisingly high share of votes, 11.4 percent (or 31 seats), whereas the largest opposition list won just under 14 percent, or 38 seats, with four other lists making it to the parliament.

Three of those lists, ranging from conservative to extreme right, won a total of 35 seats, and the green-left opposition coalition Moramo, as the biggest surprise in the election, won 13 seats and made it to the parliament for the first time ever. Minority parties won the remaining 13 seats in Serbia’s National Assembly.

Not only are the Socialists the biggest winners in the parliamentary election, but their votes have also saved Vucic from having to go into a runoff in the presidential election, as the party did not field its own candidate for the presidency but supported Vucic instead.

If the EU froze the accession process or suspended visa-free travel because of differences over sanctions on Russia,  Vucic would suffer a setback.

The biggest defeat for the ruling party came in the fight for the crown jewel of these elections, the capital city of Belgrade, which has been a cash cow for the clientelist network of the ruling party over the last eight years. Compared with the 2018 Belgrade election, when his party and another party that has since merged won 54 percent of the vote and 76 seats, Vucic has lost 16 percentage points of the vote and 28 seats (out of a total of 110 in the City Assembly).

The results will make it hard for Vucic to put together a workable majority, but the opposition also lacks a clear majority. The result might be a repeat of the Belgrade elections that would likely lead Serbia toward a Turkish or Hungarian scenario, where the opposition manages to win power in the largest city—as was the case in Istanbul and Budapest—even while the national government remains firmly out of reach.

As was the case in Hungary, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has helped the Serbian regime galvanize support and prevent a major election loss. This was because the regime could tap into the strong anti-Western sentiments it has cultivated over the past decade. Those draw on resentment over NATO’s intervention against Serbia in 1999 and the independence of Kosovo, supported by most Western governments, but rejected by Russia and China.

The second reason the war helped Vucic was that it distracted from domestic issues. In late 2021 and early 2022, Vucic’s power was shaken by unprecedented environmental protests bringing thousands of people into the streets all over the country. Thousands of Serbian citizens blocked motorways and performed other acts of civil disobedience, protesting against plans for a large lithium mine in the country’s west.

Realizing the potentially devastating effect such protests against his rule could have, Vucic decided to suspend the mining project. But Putin’s war has helped. Like Orban, by playing on citizens’ fears of the spillover effect of the war on his country, Vucic adapted his campaign to the war in Ukraine. Rather than campaigning on a pro-Russia line, his campaign presented him as a source of stability in uncertain times under the slogan “Peace, Stability, Vucic.”

He now faces difficult options. Unlike in recent years, when he formed coalitions not out of necessity, but to co-opt smaller parties and have some to blame, he now needs coalition partners. Serbia has a semi-presidential system, which means that whoever holds the majority in parliament governs the country. If the president comes from an opposing political party, then the president’s powers are largely ceremonial. Considering the high level of informal personalized power Vucic wields and the authoritarian system he has established in Serbia, he is not likely to surrender control over government easily.

The obvious choice is the long-term partner, the Socialists, which have been a partner since 2012. However, their president, Ivica Dacic, would no longer be satisfied as speaker of parliament or foreign minister but might demand the post of prime minister, a job he already held between 2012 and 2014.

This might increase tensions with the European Union, as Germany and other key member states are pushing for Serbia to join the sanctions against Russia, whereas Dacic’s party is a vocal opponent of any kind of sanctions against that country, both for ideological and economic reasons.

EU accession has remained the strategic goal of all Serbian governments for the past 20 years. If the European Union froze Serbia’s EU accession process or suspended visa-free travel within the bloc because of disagreements over sanctions on Russia, the government in Belgrade would suffer an important setback in terms of domestic support and lose the still-significant pro-European electorate.

Another option is for Vucic to form a relatively weak majority with the minority parties, a possibility he announced during the long election night when he mentioned a possible coalition with the Hungarian minority party (Orban’s satellite in Serbia). Yet, such a coalition would be narrow, and it could deprive Vucic of crucial Socialist support needed to stay in power in Belgrade. To free himself from the post-electoral grip of the Socialists, he is currently negotiating with parts of the opposition.

Any other coalition seems unlikely. Vucic has no chance of coming to terms with the two largest opposition groups, the United Opposition and the green-left coalition, to form a pro-Western coalition, desired by some in the West. Similarly, the two far-right nationalist groups, as well as the conservative Euroskeptic party, that entered parliament are less reliable than the Socialists and equally pro-Russia, making them unlikely partners.

Symbolic gestures, like voting with the majority in the U.N. General Assembly to suspend Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council, cost Serbia little.

Considering Vucic’s options, he’s most likely to continue to govern with the Socialists and try to maintain the policy of not imposing sanctions on Russia. Symbolic gestures, like voting with the majority in the U.N. General Assembly to suspend Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council, cost Serbia little, especially when the decision is justified in Russia as Serbia being forced to vote that way due to EU pressure. A bolder move against Russia could be accepted by the Socialists, but it would mean Vucic’s party would be obliged to share with them a bigger part of the spoils than planned.

Vucic is likely to maximize the time allotted by the constitution to form a new government, like he did in 2020. The new parliament has to be formed within 30 days of the announcement of the official election results, and then the new government has another 90 days to be formed, so in effect, nearly four months can pass without a new government taking office. This allows him to duck questions on sanctions by claiming that the outgoing government lacks the mandate to tackle such important issues.

On election night, Vucic lamented, with his usual dramatic style, the supposed leap to the right. While the increase for far-right and Euroskeptic parties is only marginal in comparison with the last competitive elections, in 2016, this appears to be a message primarily for a Western audience in order to build the argument that he is forced by the nationalist electorate to maintain a pro-Russia line.

This is, of course, a bind of his own making. He has consistently promoted an anti-EU line pushed forward by most tabloids and private TV channels under his control. This “nationalist turn” helped him justify his policies and present himself as a moderate candidate; however, it also might make him a victim of his own creation, as he lacks alternative coalition partners.

After telling the public for a decade that Serbia’s main enemy is in the West, a switch cannot materialize overnight.

Florian Bieber is the coordinator of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group and the Jean Monnet chair in the Europeanization of Southeastern Europe at the University of Graz, Austria. He is the author of Debating Nationalism: The Global Spread of Nations. Twitter: @fbieber

Srdjan Cvijic is the Europe’s Futures fellow of the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna and a member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG).

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