Serbian PM seeks mandate for EU talks

Serbian PM Aleksandar Vucic asks Serbian voters for four more years in power to pursue European Union membership

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Serbian Prime Minister and leader of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) Aleksandar Vucic gestures during a rally ahead of Sunday's election.

Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic is asking Serbian voters on Sunday for four more years in power to pursue European Union membership, but he may have to contend with a resurgent ultra-nationalist opposition demanding closer ties with Russia.

Vucic called early parliamentary elections just two years after his conservative Progressive Party won a landslide election victory, propelling him into office.

The 46-year-old former hardline nationalist who converted to EU-friendly policies in 2008 says he needs a clear mandate from Serbia's seven million people for reforms to complete EU membership talks launched in December.

Both EU rules and a 1.2 billion euro ($1.35 billion) loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund oblige Vucic to privatise or downsize big loss-making state-run companies, potentially throwing thousands out of work.

"We want to complete the process of privatisation, speed up [private] investments and above all to spur the entrepreneurial spirit of the people," Vucic told Reuters in an interview this week.

Opinion polls suggest Vucic's party is on track to win 48 percent -- about the same share of the vote it won two years ago -- giving him another absolute majority in parliament.

Analysts think Vucic will continue a coalition with the second-biggest party, the Socialists, even though he does not need to, to broaden his base.

Whereas until now there has been a broad consensus in parliament in favour of EU membership, Sunday's election looks likely to bring a return to parliament of ultra-nationalists who oppose EU membership and favour closer ties with Russia.

Vojislav Seselj, a nationalist firebrand who was acquitted by the UN tribunal in The Hague last month of war crimes during the 1990s breakup of Yugoslavia, could emerge as the effective leader of the opposition.

His Radicals are tipped to become the third largest party, returning to parliament for the first time since 2012.

Thorn in Vucic's side

The ultra-nationalists may complicate Serbia's EU membership talks by resisting concessions, such as ending Serbia's constitutional claim to sovereignty over Kosovo.

Critics of Vucic, who was information minister during the final years of late President Slobodan Milosevic's rule, say his government is increasingly autocratic and has stifled media freedom.

Belgrade street vendor Nadica Ciric, 39, said she would vote for Vucic, despite some calling him a dictator, because "he created jobs and saved the country from bankruptcy."

Even while integrating with the EU, Vucic's government strives to stay on good terms with traditional ally Russia, an important gas supplier. Vucic has no plans for Serbia to join NATO.

On economics, Vucic has little choice but to continue with austerity policies demanded by the IMF.

Cuts in public spending and subsidies, and tax rises helped Serbia trim its budget deficit by nearly half last year. But the economy is recovering only slowly from recession and unemployment remains around 18 percent.

Polls open at 7am (0500 GMT) and close at 8pm (1800 GMT) with first estimates of the outcome by private pollsters expected about an hour later.

TRTWorld, Reuters