Serb Premier Says He May Lose Vote After Seselj's Acquittal

  • Vucic vows to `fiercely fight' policies of nationalist leader
  • Vucic says agreement with IMF, EU path may be at stake

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic warned he may lose this month’s elections after a UN court acquitted war-time leader Vojislav Seselj of crimes against humanity in a ruling that may rekindle the kind of nationalist sentiment that led to Yugoslavia’s destruction.

A survey conducted when the Hague Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia delivered verdicts on Seselj and jailed former Bosnian-Serb President Radovan Karadzic made it “quite clear that we’ve never been closer to losing elections,” the premier told reporters in Belgrade without elaborating on Friday. “It’s quite clear that some other groups, who unite easily on all topics, may form the government.”

Vucic, who was a member of Seselj’s Serbian Radical Party in the 1990s, has most to lose. With his Serbian Progressive Party polling at about 50 percent before the verdict, he initiated general elections two years before they were due to lock in a new uninterrupted four-year term to implement reforms agreed with the International Monetary Fund and prepare Serbia to join the European Union. Following the ruling from The Hague, however, Seselj said his Radicals, now polling at 5 percent before April 24 elections, will win more than a quarter of the vote.

“I ask people to think whether they want Serbia to be stable and safe or to return to uncertainty and to the times that we believed were way behind us,” Vucic said, adding he would “fiercely fight” the policies propagated by Seselj, which would “lead Serbia to full isolation.”

Seselj’s acquittal follows last week’s 40-year sentence for Karadzic, the most senior Serb leader to be convicted of crimes against humanity committed during the bloody wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. While Seselj’s acquittal may ease tensions with the EU, which Vucic wants to be ready to join in 2020, it may also cause a shift in voting preferences among Serbs who still support the acts of their war-time leaders.

The last available opinion poll for February signaled that nationalist and right-wing parties, which oppose Serbia’s bid to join the EU, may regain parliament seats for the first time since 2012. That may benefit Seselj, who along with Karadzic and Bosnian Serb war-time military commander Gen. Ratko Mladic, was loyal to former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic was indicted and extradited to the international tribunal in 2001 and died before a verdict in 2006.

Pre-Vote ‘Bluff’

Still, the amount of support the prime minister can lose to Seselj will probably be limited to about 5 percent of the electorate, said Djordje Vukadinovic, an analyst at the Belgrade-based New Serbian Political Thought Institute. He said Vucic’s warning was a “bluff” to galvanize his support base so he can win another full majority in the ballot.

“Vucic wants an outright victory, without the need to enter any coalitions,” Vukadinovic said by phone on Friday. “He’s dramatizing any event that has the slightest potential to threaten his ratings.”

In the 2014 election, Vucic and his coalition partners won 48.35 percent, taking 158 of parliament’s 250 seats. Despite securing a majority, Vucic shared power in a coalition with Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic’s Socialists. This time around, Vucic has added other parliamentary parties to his voting bloc, and together they are polling at around 45 percent, according to Vukadinovic, citing independent surveys conducted by the New Serbian Political Thought Institute.

Anti-Western Rhetoric

Seselj founded the Radical Party with current President Tomislav Nikolic in 1991, calling for re-unification of all Serbian territories during the Yugoslav wars. Nikolic, Vucic and central bank Governor Jorgovanka Tabakovic were prominent members until 2008, when they formed the Serbian Progressive Party and won elections four years later.

Seselj, unlike his ally Karadzic, wasn’t tried for genocide. The list of charges included the murder or deportation of many Croat, Muslim and other non-Serb civilians, as well as “hate speech.” In a news conference on Thursday, he said he may seek $14 million in damages for “suffering during detention” and reiterated his opposition to Serbia deepening ties with Western countries following the NATO bombing campaign of Serb targets in Bosnia in 1995 and in Kosovo four years later.

“Our friends can only be those who didn’t bomb us,” Seselj said.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.