Vucic tightens grip on Serbian election marred by fraud allegations – POLITICO

BELGRADE — Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic looks poised to tighten his grip on power — with early exit polls suggesting a big election victory for his ruling party — even as his government faces allegations of major irregularities in Sunday’s vote.

The scale of the victory means that Vucic, who balances his relations with the West with cordial ties to the Kremlin, will remain the central figure in US and EU diplomacy in the Western Balkans, particularly in trying to avoid a major flare-up in Kosovo.

While Vucic had hoped early elections would confirm his near-total control of the EU candidate country, it now looks like he will have to defend himself against accusations of gross irregularities and voter intimidation. These controversies about electoral manipulation will only heighten fears that Vučić is rapidly undermining the country’s democracy, media and public institutions.

Speaking at the headquarters of Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said the ruling party was on track to win 47 percent of the vote and predicted the SNS would be able to form a coalition with a parliamentary majority. She said that was more than double the support of the united opposition – Serbs Against Violence – which formed after two mass shootings in May.

“I thank everyone, from the bottom of my heart, for understanding the seriousness of this moment … but above all, thank you to President Aleksandar Vucic, who topped our list, who allowed us to use his name,” she added.

The great hope of the opposition throughout the campaign was that he might be able to win the race for mayor of Belgrade. The race looked closer here, but Vucic still predicted his SNS party would win around 38.5 percent, against Serbia Against Violence’s 35 percent.

Fraud allegations

There were numerous accusations from election observers.

CRTA, the lead election observation mission, said one of its vehicles was attacked in the northern Serbian town of Odzaci, with the windshield and side windows completely smashed.

That attack came after observers reported attempted carousel voting, a process in which groups of paid voters visit several polling stations with already completed ballots.

“This is the most brutal attack our election observers have ever experienced,” CRTA Program Director Rasha Nedelkov told POLITICO.

“Yet this was not the only challenge our observers faced, others were either threatened with violence or prevented from entering polling stations,” he continued.

The day’s other headline-grabbing event took place at the Stark Arena, usually a stage for glitzy pop concerts and sporting events, which independent journalists revealed had been turned into a hub for voters bussed across the border from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The concern here centered on the lingering malaise of an electoral roll inflated with “phantom voters” – including citizens who are dead.

“Security at Stark Arena told our observers that they were filming a movie inside, that the people they could see outside were extras and that the observers could not be allowed inside,” Peja Mitrovic of Serbia Against Violence told reporters at their campaign headquarters after closing of the sections.

Subsequently, a video recording of the expulsion of the observers from the “Stark Arena” was widely distributed on social networks.

“Today, the Belgrade Arena was a gathering center for phantom voters,” he concluded.

After inviting “everyone to the celebration,” Burnabich summarily dismissed the allegations of fraud. Holding up printouts of articles and tweets from independent outlets throughout the day, she dismissed the alleged irregularities as lies.

Specifically referring to the events at Stark Arena, Burnabich said, “This is stupidity of unprecedented proportions.”

A culture of brutality

Earlier this week, a huge crowd gathered in downtown Belgrade for the high-impact “ProGlas” or ProVote campaign. Led by non-partisan activists, academics, actors and influential figures, they criss-crossed the nation, covering thousands of kilometers and organizing events in 17 locations to encourage citizens to exercise their right to vote.

Blaming Vucic for the mass shootings in May — which killed 19 people, including 10 at a Belgrade school — the Serbia Against Violence coalition said his administration fostered a culture of brutality, spread in part through edgy television programs and crude reality shows.

“Serbia is not the same country it was two years ago, it’s not even the same country it was yesterday,” famous Serbian actor and director Dragan Belogrlic told the crowd at the latest ProVote rally in the capital on Thursday night.

“We hope for change,” said Ivana Dejanovic, 27, who works in marketing and voted in central Belgrade. “I think enough is enough and it’s time for a new generation of politicians.

Vučić, despite not officially running on any ticket since assuming the presidency and delegating party leadership to Miloš Vučević, has remained the central figure in the electoral battle. His popularity was unquestioned and he delivered a staggering 45 televised addresses in the intense 44-day campaign.

Serbia has a single national constituency, meaning citizens vote directly for seats in the 250-seat central national parliament.

The country’s electoral commission is notoriously slow to release official results and usually releases them about a month after the election is held, and exit polls are usually used to indicate a preliminary result.

After the October elections were called, several mayors also resigned to pave the way for local elections to be held alongside the national ones.

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