Serb Premier's Presidential Bid Stokes Accusations of Power Grab

  • Party unanimously backs Vucic as presidential candidate
  • Allies urge Vucic to ensure unity with incumbent Nikolic

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic vowed to run in a presidential election expected in April, a move that he signaled may bring the country’s second early parliamentary ballot in a year.

The Serbian Progressive Party’s leadership selected Vucic, who has been premier since 2014, as their pick to run for president on Tuesday. Vucic said he’d quit if he loses the vote, and his candidacy is an attempt to “eliminate any risk” of a potential defeat for less-popular incumbent Tomislav Nikolic, who’s a fellow Progressive Party member. The group’s main board will meet to confirm his bid at a meeting on Friday.

“I am going from the most powerful position to one which hasn’t got a 10th of that power only to ensure continuity and stability,” Vucic told the state broadcaster in an interview. “I can’t exclude the possibility of snap parliamentary elections” happening the same day as the presidential ballot, he said, adding the vote’s date will be announced on March 1 or 2.

Vucic, 46, has tried to strike a balance between promoting Serbia’s bid to join the European Union and cementing economic ties with traditional ally Russia. He is by far the most popular politician in the Balkan country of 7 million people, having forced an early vote last year for the second time since 2012. Along with Nikolic and central bank Governor Jorgovanka Tabakovic, he left the nationalist Serbian Radical Party, a former ruling partner of late strongman Slobodan Milosevic and founded the Progressive Party in 2008 with a more moderate political agenda.

Opposition Troubled

Critics of Vucic complain that, while he has brought some economic changes, he has consolidated power in a way that undermines democracy and rule of law. They say he has suppressed media, while the EU’s executive commission has rapped Serbia for making no progress in improving freedom of expression and addressing recommendations to ensure campaign finances and electoral processes are transparent.

Vucic’s presidential bid has drawn ire from Serbian opposition parties, which warned he would still try to run the country from the more ceremonial post. Such a move would resemble actions by leaders in Poland and Romania where party leaders wield the power of government from behind the scenes.

The premier has just “unveiled the totalitarian aspect of the Serbian political system and showed to all citizens that he wants to take all the power,”  Bosko Obradovic, the leader of opposition Dveri party, said in an e-mail on Tuesday. “Now is the time to stop him.” 

The Novosti newspaper reported on Wednesday that Nikolic may seek to become the prime minister if Vucic wins the presidency to complete the power swap. While the executive powers are in the hands of the prime minister in Serbia, the president is the commander in chief and controls the country’s security service. The post can be used to wield more influence, however, as former President Boris Tadic did from 2004 to 2012. Vucic will probably take the presidency and appoint a “relatively weak prime minister” from his ruling party, said Timothy Less, the director of Nova Europa, a political risk consultancy.

‘Autocratic’ Trend

“Vucic will transform the presidency from a symbolic role into an executive role by means of his influence over the prime minister and the Serbian Progressive Party,” Less said in an e-mail. “Vucic’s move to the presidency is consistent with a regional trend toward greater autocratic government.”

A survey by Faktor Plus conducted Jan. 24-31 showed that Vucic would win 55.2 percent in the first of two potential election rounds. Other candidates include Vojislav Seselj, the head of Vucic’s former Radical Party who was acquitted of war crimes last year, and former Ombudsman Sasa Jankovic of the Democratic party.

“Vucic will inevitably win the election given his still strong popular appeal,” said Timothy Ash, senior strategist at Bluebay Asset Management. “Vucic’s de facto control over the ruling party, the Serbian Progressive Party, means that he will continue to pull the strings.”

The premier has pledged to prepare Serbia for EU membership by 2020 and agreed to a three-year accord with the International Monetary Fund to reshape the economy and cut the public deficit and debt.

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