Serb Vote to Test Support for `Painful' Reforms, President Says

  • Nikolic confirms early election will be held April 24
  • Vote comes before government plans to cut thousands of jobs

Serbia’s early elections in April will test the nation’s support for “painful” IMF-endorsed reforms already started by Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, and any failure of his administration to secure a new majority would be disappointing, the president said.

Tomislav Nikolic, a founding member of Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party, called the ballot for April 24 on Friday. Vucic, who sought the early vote two years after taking his post, wants to restart the clock on a new four-year term and consolidate power before pursuing policies aimed at curbing budget gap and public debt.

“It’s necessary for our citizens to clearly state whether they support those reforms and whether they are ready to go all the way,” Nikolic said in a briefing in Belgrade. He said he expected his party to win, and “it would be disappointing and bad if this government fails to ensure a majority.”

Spending Cuts

Under a precautionary deal with the International Monetary Fund, Vucic has cut public wages and pensions and cracked down on tax evasion. He has yet to tackle, however, his pledge to sell or close hundreds of unprofitable companies owned by the state that employ about 55,000 workers and drain more than $1 billion from the budget each year.

Some of the companies are the main sources of employment in their areas. Vucic said in January that closing copper miner RTB Bor would lead to the “collapse of eastern Serbia,” while the government is trying to sell communist-era steelmaker Zelezara Smederevo for the second time in a year.

Still, Vucic’s party leads opinion polls, garnering 49.4 percent in February survey conducted by Faktor Plus. The Progressives’ ruling partner, the Socialist Party, was second with 11.3 percent. The rest of the opposition is fractured between an array of groups, with at least four parties maintaining support at just above the 5 percent threshold required to enter parliament.

“The reforms the government has started are really serious and really painful for many,” Nikolic said. He added that Europe’s migrant crisis will pose the biggest “external challenge” to Serbia during the election campaign, and he pledged to cooperate with any party that garners majority after the ballot. If the Progressives win, the new government will be constituted by the end of May, he said.

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