The Serbian Model of Democratic Backsliding

Aleksandar Vučić, newly elected President of Serbia, and the most powerful force in Serbian politics. (Wikimedia Commons / Zoran Žestić)

The election last weekend of Aleksandar Vučić as the next President of Serbia marks a dangerous step backward for a country that was until recently one of the great success stories of the post-Cold War democracy movement. The story of Serbian democratic decline should serve as a cautionary tale, not just for other nascent democracies in the region, but also for traditional bulwarks of democracy around the world, including the United States.

Vučić, who has served as the country’s prime minister for the past three years, is undisputedly the most powerful force in Serbian politics, and has led the Serbian Progressive Party to impressive electoral victories in parliament over the past five years. But Vučić’s term as prime minister has coincided with an erosion of the country’s political institutions, concentrating unmatched power in his hands, culminating in his presidential election on last Sunday — the first time since Slobodan Milošević that a Serbian presidential candidate has won without needing a runoff. By winning the presidency — in theory a largely symbolic role in Serbian government — Vučić now puts himself in a position with fewer direct constraints on his power when he takes office at the end of May.

Serbia, which worked hard to build a functioning democracy from the ashes of Tito’s Yugoslavia and Milošević’s dictatorship, now risks backsliding into a form of managed democracy — where elections occur and political parties exist, but the game is undeniably rigged.

Serbia’s recent history is unfortunately not unique. Turkey’s once championed democracy has similarly eroded, driven by the leadership of former Prime Minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — whose footsteps Vučić appears determined to follow. Elsewhere in Europe, Poland and Hungary face similar democratic backsliding under their nationalist-populist leaders.

In Serbia, as in other countries, democratic gains are under assault due to the erosion of the country’s core democratic institutions. This erosion of institutions is manifesting itself in three key ways: the undermining of the free press, the personalization of politics, and the promotion of a winner-take-all mentality to governing.

Slobodan Milošević, the former President of Yugoslavia, who President-elect Vučić worked under as Minister of Communications. (Wikimedia Commons)

The first pillar of Serbian democracy that has come under attack is investigative journalism. Vučić has long had an antagonistic relationship with the free press of Serbia, dating back to his time as Milošević’s Minister of Communications in the late 1990s. He, along with other Serbian nationalists, such as the pro-Russian Radical Party, have effectively undermined public trust in the media by attacking nearly all critical coverage as the product of a biased media on the payroll of foreign agitators.

But the biggest threat in Serbia to the sort of quality journalism necessary for a democracy to thrive is the economics of running a profitable media company. The liberalization of Serbia’s media sector has left a crowded and largely unprofitable landscape of newspapers and television channels, which incentivizes either tabloid-style sensationalist news or an overreliance on government funding, both of which have drowned out what little space is left for quality, investigative journalism.

The erosion of public trust in the arbiters of truth — whether that be the media, the judiciary, or government ombudsmen — can be seen in other democracies, as well. Erdoğan’s government arrested more than 80 journalists in Turkey last year, while Prime Minister Abe has been accused of pressuring media outlets in Japan for more favorable coverage. Here in America, President Trump has launched a scorched-earth strategy against critical newspapers, as well as independent institutions, such as judges and the Congressional Budget Office. In Serbia, as elsewhere, the loss of a respected media sector has allowed government officials to consolidate more power, muddying the waters of truth whenever the facts are inconvenient. Though Serbia’s situation is vastly more serious than that of the United States or Japan, the Balkan nation’s recent history should serve as a cautionary tale even to strong democracies of the danger of a weakened media environment.

Another ghost of Serbia’s authoritarian past that has persisted is the personalization of politics and governance. Since Tito’s Yugoslavia, Serbian politics have largely been defined by the force of individual personalities, lifting or sinking the hopes of their political parties with them.

The National Assembly of Serbia in Belgrade with nationalist posters in front condemning Albanian “terrorists” and NATO “aggression.” (Ken Sofer)

By no means did Vučić start this trend, but he has played this game much more effectively than his political rivals and has accelerated the practice to the detriment of Serbian democracy. The Progressive Party’s pitch to voters has been largely based on the ability of Vučić to single-handedly solve the country’s problems much in the way authoritarian strongmen like Vladimir Putin have tried to portray themselves to their citizens. Vučić’s take on this well-worn strongman strategy has included major photo ops of him meeting with individual citizens and intervening to address their personal problems.

The degree of personality-driven politics varies from country to country, but generally bodes poorly for strong, stable democracies. It’s what made Trump’s proclamation at the Republican National Convention, “I alone can fix it,” so disturbing to many observers. By equating the party and the government with the head of state, it justifies greater and greater concentration of power in the hands of the leader at the expense of potential checks on his or her power.

Fueled in part by the country’s personality-driven politics, Serbian elections have taken on a winner-take-all mentality in the past few years, whereby the victor claims a mandate and rules with little regard for the interests of voters not within their electoral base.

It wasn’t always this way. In the decade following Milošević’s fall, Serbia was governed by big-tent coalition governments, including a series of coalitions that included liberals, nationalists, and socialists. These late-2000s governments didn’t always function smoothly, but the effort by Serbian leaders to form unity governments across ideological lines spoke to their belief that the government served all of its citizens, not just its voters.

Serbian parliamentary election results by district in 2016. Vučić’s Progressive Party of Serbia received 63 percent of the national vote. (Wikimedia Commons)

The electoral balance that existed between the country’s main political parties took a sharp turn in the 2014 election, when the Progressive Party of Serbia, led by Prime Minister Vučić, captured a staggering 48 percent of the vote — three and a half times more than the runner-up Socialists. But Vučić’s Progressives didn’t just try to win the election, they tried to shut out the opposition by strategically targeting parties polling near the 5 percent threshold for entry into parliament. This strategy worked very effectively in 2014, when 6 major parties fell below the electoral threshold, meaning they received zero seats in parliament despite winning a combined 18 percent of the vote. The result gave the Progressive Party 63 percent of the seats in parliament on 48 percent of the vote.

Vučić and the Progressives did end up forming a governing coalition with the Socialist Party, but the junior partner never had a real role in governing the country, and Vučić governed Serbia with almost no input from the liberal parties that had been devastated by the prime minister’s successful electoral strategy. In a surprise to many Serbian political observers, this same strategy backfired in the 2016 parliamentary election as 5 parties managed to just barely surpass the 5 percent threshold. The result was Vučić and the Progressives losing nearly 25 percent of its seats in parliament despite winning the exact same vote share as the previous election.

The Serbian experience with winner-take-all politics has parallels in many other countries as successful political parties attempt to control all the levers of government, compromising less and less to rivals. Egypt’s brief moment of democracy following the 2011 Arab Spring collapsed largely due to the Muslim Brotherhood’s winner-take-all approach after it won the country’s first parliamentary and presidential elections. Similarly, Venezuela’s functioning democracy has devolved into an authoritarian state as first Hugo Chávez and now Nicolás Maduro interpreted electoral victories as mandates to rule the country without opposition input. Even in the United States, the trend towards approving cabinet appointees and Supreme Court nominees along party lines, even by changing the rules governing the legislature’s role in the process, is a worrying trend towards winner-take-all politics.

The unwillingness or inability of electoral winners to build cross-party coalitions or accept the minority’s legitimate role in governing weakens a country’s internal coherence and heightens the stakes of individual elections, increasing the temptation by all participants to win by any means necessary. Some of these strategies, such as Vučić’s 5 percent threshold approach aren’t inherently illegal, but they are undemocratic in spirit. At a certain point these actions that violate the spirit, though not the letter of the law, begin to undermine the legitimacy of elections and the governments that attempt to proclaim mandates based on them, setting a dangerous precedent for a country’s future.

There are no short or simple solutions for putting Serbia and its fellow backsliders back on the democratic path. It would be much easier if the problem were simply un-democratic leaders like Vučić, Erdoğan, or Maduro, but these leaders are a product of the institutional weaknesses facing their countries. Men like Vučić have exacerbated the flaws of Serbian democracy, but they alone have not created them.

Just as the democratic gains of the past century were not simply the product of better leaders, the reinvigoration of these democracies will require more than just benevolent leaders. When Serbs rebuilt their country after ousting Milošević from power, they focused on building robust political institutions — a free press, an independent judiciary, ideologically coherent political parties, and a system of checks and balances. Reversing Serbia’s recent democratic backsliding will require reinvesting in these same institutions, not just winning at the polls.

Now is not the time for the United States to remain silent about democratic backsliding in Serbia and elsewhere. Instead, the U.S. must lead the reinvigoration of democratic institutions around the world, both by aiding countries like Serbia, as well as leading by example at home.