Serbia: Can an election victory mean the country finally faces up to reform?

In most countries politics, as the saying goes, is “the art of the possible”. Serbia, that is seeing new government being formed following elections last month, is an exception: politics in my country is the art of the unbelievable. Here, just as robbers in the Bible can become saints, a party founded only six years ago by ultranationalists transformed into the staunchest of pro-EU reformers has won a landslide election victory.

While the victorious Serbian Progressive Party should should savor their win, by securing the first majority for a single party since the time of Slobodan Milosevic they inadvertently find themselves in a place most politicians dread: without the chance to blame someone else when events turn against them. Suddenly, the deep and painful economic reforms that Serbia has needed for a least a generation, and the European Union expects to secure membership, seem unable to be ignored.

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Serbian governments since the end of the Communist era have been formed through coalitions, and in many cases coalitions of electoral lists that are themselves coalitions of individual parties. This political system has been the principle barrier to Serbia’s development over the last 20 years. It has led to a situation where political leaders can pledge absolutely anything at election time, safe in the knowledge the inevitable coalition government formed after polling day means they will never have to implement their promises. The end outcome is inertia and the challenges that have remained constant since the collapse of Yugoslavia – the need for economic reform, tackling endemic corruption and imposing the rule of law – remain unaddressed.

The need to do is pressing. Serbia, despite seeking a fast track to membership of the EU has, according to the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, levels of corruption comparable to Peru and El Salvador. In practice this means the courts are not functioning outside of political and financial influence, public services that by law are free at the point of use do not serve without payment, and management jobs in state-owned companies – Serbia’s largest employers – are used to reward political loyalty, placing the viability of these businesses at risk.

Even without the reforms Serbia desperately needs unemployment stands at over 20 per cent; among the under twenty-fives nearly half are unemployed. If reforms do come Serbia will not buck the trend towards even higher unemployment other post-communist nations experienced when they privatised failing state-owned companies.

The question is, will Serbia’s new majority party really lead the reforms it has promised? While no coalition is needed, already there are murmurs the Progressives will seek a coalition. In most countries political leaders relish the chance for their party to rule alone. But in Serbia this would mean having to keep your promises and undertaking the reforms so necessary for the country’s future, but so deadly for the future of the politician who enacts them.

While Serbia waits to see if the Progressives will seek a coalition partner to scapegoat, their electoral success has done for Serbia one great service. The numbers of parties in Parliament has been reduced, meaning there are now only three main poles on the political spectrum: the Progressives on the right, having seen the ejection of other conservative nationalists groupings from Parliament, the Socialists – former supporters of Serbia’s communist party and two centre left parties, the Democrats and New Democrats, one being a splinter from the other. This has the makings of a far more stable democratic system than Serbia has experienced before, and the basis for a political structure whereby politicians can seek office to enact their manifesto pledges, not find reasons to avoid them.

To have this choice – between left, right and centre - is what those of us who campaigned against Communism in Yugoslavia and Serbia wanted. The creation of a class of professional politicians without policies seeking only to perpetuate themselves in office was not our intention. But it is what the political system produced. This has made Serbia a prisoner of its political class and allergic to inevitable reforms: a country where politicians can change sides, swap coalitions and promise anything with impunity, and where the cost of these political charades always falls on the voter. Serbia will soon see if this majority election is a watershed in its politics and if victory finally embeds the normal political spectrum other European countries enjoy, or whether our new leaders despite their massive mandate still cannot summon the courage to face the future.

Cveticanin is senior research fellow at the National Institute of Social Sciences in Belgrade, Serbia. He is the author of “The European Right: between the Law and the Sword”, “The Age beyond Left and Right” and “Requiem for the Revolution”. He served as a member of the parliament of Serbia between 2012 and 2014.