Serbian opposition challenges Aleksandar Vučić’s grip on power in snap vote

Serbian voters go to the polls on Sunday, six months after mass shootings left the country in shock and sparked protests against pro-Russian President Aleksandar Vučić.

Opposition parties formed an ad-hoc coalition, Serbia Against Violence, seeking to capitalise on voter discontent and challenge Vučić’s populist Serbian Progressive party (SNS).

But recent opinion polls show SNS firmly in the lead at around 40 per cent, with the opposition unlikely to secure a parliamentary majority. Instead, Serbia Against Violence is narrowing its focus on local elections also taking place on Sunday, hoping to upset the SNS majority in Belgrade city hall. Polling for that race shows the two camps neck-and-neck, with SNS and their coalition partner at 42 per cent, with the opposition on 40 per cent.

The dual elections present an opportunity to show that “the image of the unbeatable Vučić would be shaken”, said Djordje Miketic, a green MP and one of the fiercest critics of the president.

Vučić’s own job is not up for renewal until 2027 but the president said he would step down if his party fails to secure a majority in parliament. Such an upset would be a remarkable feat for Serbia Against Violence, given that the SNS government controls much of the media and has deeper resources than its opponents.

The opposition coalesced this year after two deadly shootings in May were carried out by teenagers, shocking the nation. Public anger soon turned against Vučić in weekly protests that demanded his ousting.

In his seven years as president, Vučić, who cut his political teeth as a propaganda minister for Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milošević, sought to strike a balance between continuing on the path of EU integration and keeping strong economic and political ties with Russia.

Since Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, Serbia has become a hub for Russian émigrés and businesses trying to keep a foothold in Europe, as Vučić has resisted EU pressure in aligning with western sanctions.

The Serbian president’s ambivalence on Russia has angered many voters who want a clearer pro-European orientation, especially in the nation’s capital.

“Our movement has spread out from Belgrade,” said Green MP Biljana Đorđević. “We called the people out on the streets nationwide.”

If the opposition secured at least a third of parliamentary seats, it would be able to block constitutional changes, maintain a modest measure of control over the government and inspire more opposition to Vučić, she said.

The capital’s administration is influential in Serbia’s political and economic landscape, given that nearly half of the country’s gross domestic product is generated in Belgrade. Some of the largest development projects dear to the president are also based in the capital, including a waterfront project and the hosting of Expo 2027, a major world fair.

“An opposition victory in Belgrade and a weaker SNS in parliament would restore some badly needed political pluralism to Serbia, but not dent Vučić’s grip on power in a meaningful way in the next few years,” said Milos Damnjanovic, an analyst at the BIRN consultancy in Belgrade.

Complicating the opposition’s efforts are historic sympathies with Russia and deeply rooted mistrust of the west after the Nato-led bombing in 1999 when Milošević was in power in Belgrade. A further blow came when Serbia’s former province, Kosovo, became an independent nation backed by the US and most EU countries.

Serbia has never recognised Kosovo’s independence and tensions have continued in the north of its former province, where the population is majority-Serb.

The opposition alliance, which is an eclectic mix of social democratic, liberal, green and centrist parties, is unsure how long its tie-up will last beyond Sunday’s elections.

“People forced this [opposition] coalition from the bottom up, and it may not last long,” Green MP Miketic said. “It isn’t organic, participants don’t necessarily like each other.”