Serbia's populist premier seeks to cement power as president

Critics see danger in Aleksandar Vucic's political dominance

Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic: ready to move “from the most powerful position to one that hasn’t got one-tenth of that power only to ensure continuity and stability”. Photograph: Andrej Cukic/EPA

Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic: ready to move “from the most powerful position to one that hasn’t got one-tenth of that power only to ensure continuity and stability”. Photograph: Andrej Cukic/EPA

 

Serbia’s populist prime minister Aleksandar Vucic has announced plans to run for the country’s presidency, a move that could concentrate enormous power in the hands of the former nationalist firebrand.

Mr Vucic is his nation’s most popular politician and the dominant figure in his Serbian Progressive Party, and as president he could assume the head of state’s powers while retaining de facto control over the parliamentary majority, the government and whomever he backed to succeed him as premier.

He received the Progressives’ nomination for the election, which is expected in April, amid predictions that current president and party colleague Tomislav Nikolic may face a stiff fight with opponents that would almost certainly go to a second-round run-off.

Mr Vucic insisted he was ready to move “from the most powerful position to one that hasn’t got one-tenth of that power only to ensure continuity and stability”.

Sacrifice

“This is the most important thing and there is no sacrifice or risk I could not take for that,” he added, while alluding to a possible revival in the fortunes of the Democratic Party, which dominated Serbian politics for about a decade until 2012.

“It is an issue of importance for the future of Serbia, because in recent months we could see how all of those who were destroying the country, who led it to the brink of bankruptcy and destroyed the future, wish to return to power and destroy Serbia,” said Mr Vucic (46).

While Serbia’s president has a largely ceremonial role, analysts said Mr Vucic could exert almost total control over the country’s political landscape from that position.

“The president, who controls the parliamentary majority, hence the government, is de facto the strongest political figure in the country. If Vucic preserves control over his party, his political power will be unlimited,” said Nebojsa Spaic, a Belgrade-based media consultant.

Tim Ash, an economist with expertise of central and eastern Europe, said: “Vucic will inevitably win the election given his still strong popular appeal. Vucic’s de facto control over the ruling party . . . means that he will continue to pull the strings.”

Opponents of Mr Vucic and the Progressives say they already wield a dangerous amount of power in Serbian politics and through their supporters in the country’s business and media worlds.

EU accession

Mr Vucic and Mr Nikolic were allies of ally of warmongering 1990s Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, but both say they have abandoned far-right views and now favour European Union accession.

Both leaders insist however, that they will never recognise the independence of Kosovo, a former province of Serbia, and they advocate close diplomatic, economic and security ties with Russia as a counterweight to relations with the west.

Mr Vucic’s candidacy was swiftly backed by the Socialists, who are the Progressives’ main coalition partner, and several smaller political groups.

“This decision is the best for Serbia, the only rational and logical one,” said Socialist leader Ivica Dacic.

“His victory as the joint candidate guarantees the political stability of Serbia in the upcoming period.”