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Vučić tightens grip in Serbian election marred by fraud claims

by editor

BELGRADE — Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić looks set to tighten his grip on power — with early exit polling suggesting a sweeping election win for his ruling party — although his government is facing accusations of major irregularities over the course of Sunday’s vote.

The scale of the victory means Vučić, who balances his relations with the West with cordial ties to the Kremlin, will remain the focal figure in U.S. and EU diplomacy in the Western Balkans, particularly in terms of trying to avoid a severe flare-up in Kosovo.

While Vučić hoped the snap election would confirm his near total control of the EU candidate country, he now looks set to have to defend himself against charges of major irregularities and voter intimidation. These disputes over electoral manipulation will only heighten fears that Vučić is rapidly undermining the country’s democracy, media and public institutions.

Speaking at the headquarters of Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), Prime Minister Ana Brnabić said the ruling party was on course to win 47 percent of the vote, and predicted that the SNS would be able to form a coalition with a parliamentary majority. She said that was more than twice the support of the united opposition — Serbians Against Violence — which formed in the aftermath of two mass shootings in May.

“Thank you to everyone, from the depths of my heart, for understanding the seriousness of this moment … but above all, thank you to President Aleksandar Vučić who led our list, who allowed us to use his name,” she added.

The opposition’s great hope throughout the campaign was that it might be able to win the mayoral race for Belgrade. Here, the race looked closer, but Vučić was still predicting his SNS party would win some 38.5 percent, versus Serbia Against Violence’s 35 percent.

Fraud accusations

There were multiple accusations from the electoral observers.

CRTA, the leading election monitoring mission, said one of its vehicles was attacked in the northern Serbian town of Odžaci, with the windshield and side windows being completely smashed.

This assault came after the observers reported an attempt at carousel voting — a process where groups of paid voters attend several polling stations with their ballots already filled in.

“This is the most brutal attack our election observers have ever experienced,” the program director of CRTA, Raša Nedeljkov, told POLITICO.

“Yet it wasn’t the only challenge our observers faced, others were either threatened with violence or prevented from accessing polling stations,” he continued.

The other headline grabbing event of the day happened at the Stark Arena, typically a stage for glitzy pop concerts and sports events, which independent journalists revealed was transformed into a hub for voters bussed-in across the border from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The concern here centered on a long-running malaise of an electoral roll inflated with “phantom voters” — including citizens who are dead.

“The security figures at the Stark Arena told our observers that they’re filming a movie inside, that the people they see outside are extras and that the observers can’t be let in,” Peđa Mitrović from Serbia Against Violence told reporters at their election headquarters after polls closed.

A video of the observers being kicked out of the Stark Arena was subsequently widely shared on social media.

“Today, the Belgrade Arena was a collection center for phantom voters,” he concluded.

After inviting “everyone to the celebration,” Brnabić gave short shrift to the fraud accusations. Holding up printouts of articles and tweets from independent outlets during the day, she dismissed the alleged irregularities as lies.

Specifically referring to the events at Stark Arena, Brnabić said: “This is a stupidity of unseen proportions.”

Culture of brutality

Earlier this week, a massive crowd converged in central Belgrade for the high-impact “ProGlas” or ProVote campaign. Spearheaded by non-partisan activists, academics, actors, and influential figures, they crisscrossed the nation, covering thousands of kilometers and orchestrating events in 17 locations to encourage citizens to exercise their voting rights.

Blaming Vučić for May’s mass shootings — which killed 19 people, including 10 at a Belgrade school —the Serbia Against Violence coalition held his administration fostered a culture of brutality propagated in part through divisive television programming and coarse reality shows.

“Serbia is not the same country it was two years ago, it’s not even the same country it was yesterday,” renowned Serbian actor and director Dragan Bjelogrlić told the crowd at the final ProVote rally in the capital on Thursday evening.

“We are hoping for a change,” said Ivana Dejanović, 27, who works in marketing and voted in central Belgrade. “I think enough is enough and that it’s time for a new generation of politicians.”

Vučić, despite not officially running on any list since assuming the presidency and delegating party leadership to Milos Vučević, remained the central figure in the election fray. His prominence was unmistakable, and he delivered a staggering 45 television addresses in the intense 44-day campaign.

Serbia has a single nationwide constituency, which means that citizens cast direct votes for seats in the nation’s central 250-seat parliament.

The country’s election commission is notoriously slow in coming up with official results and usually publishes them around a month after polls are held, and exit polls are usually used to indicate a preliminary outcome.

After elections were announced in October, several mayors resigned as well to pave way for local elections to be held in parallel with the national ones.

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