Conservative Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic is runaway favourite to win Sunday's Serbian presidential elections despite opposition warnings about the extent of his domination over the Balkan country, balanced between the West and Russia.
Most polls see Vucic, 47, winning in the first round with more than 50 percent of the vote, trailed in the low teens by a former rights advocate and a white-suited student whose satirical portrayal of a sleazy political fraudster has struck a chord with some disillusioned voters.
Reporting from the capital Belgrade, FRANCE 24’s correspondent Laurent Rouy said Vucic, a former hardline nationalist, is confident of winning the first round vote largely because of his existing grip on the country’s powerful institutions – including the mainstream media - combined with a fragmented opposition.
Serbian presidential election
“So after they [Vucic’s ruling party] took power [in 2012] and because the government in office before them lost the confidence of the population, they started to build this machine of control that is able to exact pressure on a number of voters today and this helps them to secure much more votes than they would really receive if everything was transparent,” FRANCE 24’s Rouy said.
“So, on the one hand its populism and on the other extended control are why Vucic is apparently so successful.”
The role of president is mostly ceremonial, so if Vucic wins the election he’ll retain real power through his political party, the Progressive Party.
EU and Russia: The balancing act
As such, the election is unlikely to alter the country's delicate balancing act between the European Union, which Vucic wants Serbia to join, and Russia, with which Serbs share their Orthodox Christian faith and Slavic heritage.
During the campaign, the studio backdrop of one popular television talkshow on which Vucic was a guest featured a photograph of him flanked by pictures of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
To his supporters, Vucic, who became prime minister three years ago, is a cool head and a firm hand in a troubled region.
"There were no real proposals or ideas in the programmes of the other candidates, so I voted for the only one who actually produced something and that was Vucic," said 28-year-old Nebojsa Tomic, an unemployed pharmacist, shortly after polls opened.
Vucic's opponents, however, say he has an authoritarian streak.
He denies the charge but has struggled to shake it given his record when last in government in the dying days of Yugoslavia; then, in his late 20s, Vucic was Serbia's feared information minister behind draconian legislation designed to muzzle criticism of the government during the 1998-99 Kosovo war.
"The state of the media reflects the way Aleksandar Vucic rules Serbia - using pressure, abuse and often false statements," Sasa Jankovic, Serbia's former human rights ombudsman who was polling a distant second or third before Sunday's vote, told N1 television.
‘Proxy’ prime minister
Jankovic and a host of opposition candidates risk being embarrassed by 25-year-old communications student Luka Maksimovic, whose alter ego Ljubisa 'Beli' Preletacevic has come from almost nowhere to challenge them for second place.
Dressed in a white suit and loafers, the pony-tailed Maksimovic plays on a widely-held perception of Balkan politicians as out to line their own pockets at the expense of the downtrodden masses. Despite economic growth and greater fiscal stability, Serbia remains mired in poverty and corruption.
"I voted for Beli," said 30-year-old Dejan Markovic, an unemployed metal worker. "The so-called opposition candidates have betrayed us in the past and Vucic is lying to us all now, so Beli is the only way to mock all this hypocrisy."
Pollsters said a high turnout among Serbia's 6.7 million eligible voters may yet force a run-off on April 16, Easter weekend.
"I am hoping these elections will facilitate stability and the continuation of economic reforms," Vucic said after voting.
Vucic is widely expected to appoint a loyal ally as prime minister to try to keep a tight rein on policy, as former President Boris Tadic, then of the Democratic Party, did between 2004 and 2012.
Some analysts said that could yet prove difficult.
"Vucic will now be distanced from everyday policy-making and executive affairs and will have to rely on a proxy," Eurasia Group wrote in on March 30.
"This will likely generate some tensions in the chain of command."
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)
Date created : 2017-04-02