BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia is holding a parliamentary vote this weekend that takes place amid concerns over the continuing spread of the new coronavirus and political divisions in the Balkan country.
The populists of President Aleksandar Vucic are expected to cement their already tight grip on power in Sunday’s balloting. They are facing practically no challenge from divided opponents despite a plummeting democracy record.
Here is a look at the political and virus outbreak situation ahead of the vote:
WHAT’S GOING ON WITH THE OUTBREAK?
Serbia has gone from very strict anti-virus measures to an almost total relaxation, so there are practically no restrictive rules for the balloting on Sunday. Health authorities will provide face masks, gloves and hand sanitizers at the polling stations and their use is recommended but not obligatory.
The country’s crisis team has said that it is now up to citizens to take care of their own health by respecting social distancing and other recommendations. Serbia still has dozens of new coronavirus cases daily, facing a spike after relaxing the lockdown.
HOW STRONG ARE THE RULING POPULISTS?
The governing Serbian Progressive Party dominates the election, with the party leader and Serbian President Vucic taking center-stage in the campaign and generally on Serbia’s political scene.
A former extreme nationalist, Vucic has sought to rebrand himself as a pro-European, but he has faced accusations of clamping down on democratic freedoms, fueling divisive hate speech and curbing any dissent or criticism. Opponents say Vucic has complete control over the mainstream media, leaving virtually no space for critical voices. He has denied this.
WHAT ARE THE MAIN OPPOSITION GROUPS?
Serbia’s beleaguered opposition parties are divided, with the biggest groups boycotting the vote on Sunday while others have chosen to run. The debate on the issue has been the main topic among the opposition groups, who are also divided between those who are primarily nationalist and those who are liberal.
Parties that are boycotting the vote say there is no point in giving legitimacy to an election that is neither free nor fair and presents a danger to public health because of the virus outbreak. Those taking part insist the boycott makes no sense and will only further sideline the opposition. Both groups, however, agree that election conditions are far from satisfactory.
WHAT WAS CAMPAIGNING LIKE?
Initially planned in April the election was delayed because of the virus outbreak. Vucic has canceled party rallies to prevent further virus spread, but he has toured the country opening new roads and factories and praising government achievements. The governing party early in the campaign released a virus-era video featuring Vucic holding a virtual rally surrounded by video monitors of his clapping supporters.
Opposition groups have relied on election videos and small-scale campaign actions throughout Serbia. Pollsters say the ruling party will win the vote but several other groups will likely make it into the parliament.
HOW IS VOTING ORGANIZED?
Some 6.7 million voters will choose 250 parliament members, as well as local authorities, from an array of competing parties. Apart from Vucic’s Progressives, the main contenders are the allied Socialists, the extreme right Serbian Radical Party and several right-wing and liberal groups.
Polls open at 7 a.m. Sunday and close thirteen hours later. There are no exit polls in Serbia, but polling agencies usually publish reliable early projections about an hour after polls close. Official results are expected later in the evening and on Monday.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN AFTER THE ELECTION?
Vucic has said he needs a strong majority at the election amid intensified international efforts to restart dialogue with Kosovo, a breakaway Serbian province whose independence Belgrade does not recognize.
Leaders of Serbia and Kosovo are set to meet for talks in Washington on June 27, just a few days after Vucic also travels to Russia, Serbia’s main ally in its rejection of Kosovo’s U.S.-backed independence.
Serbia is formally seeking European Union entry and Brussels has led talks on Kosovo in previous years. But Serbia relies on Moscow and China to defend its position in the United Nations.