Serbia ruling party faces split opposition in post-virus poll

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Belgrade (AFP)

Serbia's centre-right ruling party is poised Sunday to cement its dominance in Europe's first national election since the coronavirus pandemic, with a scattered opposition clearing the path to victory under President Aleksandar Vucic.

The powerful leader is not running for parliament himself but has fronted the campaign as the chief of his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) with the slogan: "Aleksandar Vucic - For Our Children".

In office since 2012, the SNS is expected to garner more than 50 percent of the vote, according to recent polls, thanks to a weak opposition and recent successes in fighting the coronavirus outbreak.

Several of the main opposition groups are boycotting the vote altogether, decrying democratic backsliding under Vucic's domineering governance.

A slate of other small opposition parties are still in the race, but only a handful are expected to clear the three-percent threshold to enter parliament.

With a sense of excitement missing, "the results are (already) very clear and evident," said Dobrica Veselinovic, a young activist with the opposition movement Ne Davimo Belgrade, which backs the boycott campaign.

"It's just putting a stamp on something which has already happened."

Vucic, who was previously prime minister, is also riding a wave of popularity after keeping the coronavirus situation under control, with some 260 deaths in a country of seven million.

Though the post of president is meant to be ceremonial, 50-year-old Vucic has continued to serve as Serbia's top decision-maker, leading the nation through the health emergency and making new announcements and TV appearances.

After bringing the first curve of infections down with tight lockdown measures, Serbia bolted out of confinement in early May -- even allowing some 16,000 to gather at a recent football match.

Infections are now starting to rise again but the ballot, already delayed once by the virus in April, is going ahead with masks and gloves made available at polling stations.

- 'Competitive autocracy' -

Rallies have mostly been cancelled over virus concerns, leaving Vucic to take centre stage for several virtual gatherings, in which he addressed hundreds of computer screens bearing faces of supporters watching from home.

In addition to touting various infrastructure projects, he made promises such as raising salaries to 900 euros a month by 2025 -- nearly double the current 500-euro average.

Dusan Spasojevic, a political science professor at Belgrade University, says Vucic has used the same playbook as other populists on the continent.

"He found a way to speak on the behalf of people who were poor, less educated, lived in those places where you don't have many opportunities in your life... he gave them hope."

He also benefits from a warped media landscape populated with pro-government outlets, plus a vast voting base of public sector employees and their relatives.

His increasingly "authoritarian" grip, particularly over the media and state institutions, means "Serbia does not meet minimal conditions for elective democracy", says Spasojevic.

"I use the term competitive autocracy: when there is a competition but participants are not equal," he said.

Other observers agree, including the US-based Freedom House which recently deemed the country no longer a democracy but a "hybrid regime" because of Vucic's strongman tactics.

Some 6.5 million people, including the diaspora, are eligible to vote, with initial results expected a few hours after polls close at 1800 GMT.

The biggest unknown in this election could be turnout, due to the virus and the boycott campaign.

Radojko Sovrlic, a 58-year-old mechanical engineer in Belgrade, told AFP he thinks Vucic deserves to be supported.

"He has made a number of roads, tunnels, bridges, kindergartens. He has built quite a lot during his rule," he said.