With political upheaval in France and uncertainty in Greece following 6 May elections, many commentators said Serbia’s polls that day stood out for being orderly and unsurprising. The Economist called the country an “island of calm” in a tumultuous Europe. In a pre-election piece, the Financial Times suggested that Serbian politics have pacified after years of division.

There were, in fact, few surprises. The Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) of Tomislav Nikolic narrowly won the parliamentary election, followed by President Tadic’s Democratic Party (DS) and the Socialist Party, which doubled its parliamentary seats in the only real surprise of the day. Tadic edged out Nikolic in the presidential poll, and they go into a second round run-off 20 May.

But the polls created a false sense of tranquility. That’s partly because they so closely followed Serbia winning EU candidate status in March. The proximity explains why Tadic did so well despite 25 percent unemployment and why the campaigning was less divisive than in years past, as the major parties support EU membership, at least rhetorically.

If anything, the election was the calm before the storm. Despite narrowly winning 6 May, Nikolic’s SNS could be shut out of the government because of a coalition deal announced between Tadic’s DS and the Socialists last week. Nikolic has alleged massive electoral fraud – though without providing evidence – and is threatening to mobilize demonstrations, presumably if he loses Sunday’s run-off.

That seems likely, as Tadic is polling well in front. And even if Nikolic can’t orchestrate mass protests, the eventual new government faces serious challenges ahead.

Public discontent over a lengthy economic crisis, unemployment and corruption is mounting. We see some evidence of this in the Socialists’ gains 6 May. But there was also a surprisingly strong general protest vote. Five percent of the cast ballots were so-called “white votes” that had been purposefully destroyed.

The new government will also face EU pressure to continue accession reforms and the politically touchy “dialogue” with Pristina that began in March 2011. Officially, the negotiations concern technical issues like customs. But European leaders have signaled that they view progress in the talks as Belgrade making major concessions to Pristina. This includes dismantling its “parallel” governing structures in the majority-Serb northern Kosovo.

“I’m not sure they realize how soon they will be tested,” Reuters quotes a Western diplomat as saying. “The scrutiny will be intense.”

Given the troubles at home and mounting pressure from abroad, this year is shaping up to be anything but calm for Belgrade.

Picture of Tadic (right arm raised) at a campaign rally from Flickr

S. Adam Cardais

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Email: adam.cardais@tol.org.

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