Ruling populist party claims landslide win in Serbia vote

International

A police officer, wearing a mask to protect against coronavirus, guards the Serbian parliament building during a protest against President Aleksandar Vucic and his government, in Belgrade, Serbia, Saturday, June 20, 2020. Sign in front reads “Belgrade” in Serbian Cyrillic letters. Serbia is holding a parliamentary vote this weekend that takes place amid concerns over continuing spread of the new coronavirus and deep political divisions in the Balkan country. The ruling populist of President Aleksandar Vucic are expected to cement their grip on power at Sunday’s balloting, facing practically no challenge from the opposition parties despite Serbia’s plummeting democracy record and mounting allegations of corruption. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia’s president declared a landslide victory Sunday for his right-wing party in a parliamentary vote held amid concerns over the spread of the novel coronavirus and a boycott of much of the opposition.

Aleksandar Vucic told jubilant supporters that his Serbian Progressive Party won over 60% of the vote, or some 190 seats in the 250-seat Serbian parliament.

The initial unofficial results indicate that Serbia will have a unique assembly, with virtually no opposition and only three or four parties out of the 21 which were running. Vucic’s allied Socialists are slated to get 10% for the second place in the vote.

“I have been long in politics, but I never experienced such a moment,” Vucic said. “I’m talking about a historic moment in which one party can find itself. We have won everywhere, where we have never been winning in the past.”

Sunday’s vote was the first national election in Europe to take place during the virus pandemic. The voting — initially planned for April but postponed because of the pandemic — comes as Serbia is still reporting dozens of new cases daily after completely relaxing its strict lockdown rules.

The turnout among the nearly 6.6 million voters who were eligible to cast ballots for Serbia’s 250-member parliament and local offices was lower than in previous elections.

While Serbian voters were not choosing a president Sunday, Vucic has dominated the campaign through the mainstream media which he controls, denouncing and ridiculing his critics. He has refuted allegations of abusing his formal ceremonial powers as president by taking a leading role in the campaign.

Citing the lack of free and fair voting conditions and a danger to public health, several main opposition groups boycotted the vote. But a number of smaller parties decided to run, saying the boycott would only sideline an already marginalized opposition.

A group of opposition parties that boycotted the vote said the low turnout showed that the majority of Serbia’s citizens did not support Vucic and his party. Opposition leaders said Serbia was in a deep crisis which needs to be solved peacefully.

Political analyst Florian Bieber said on Twitter that Vucic’s party beat Russia’s ruling party United Russia ”to the largest ruling party majority in Europe after Belarus.”

The European Union can’t pretend that today’s “farce of an election” didn’t happen in Serbia, he tweeted.

Health authorities provided face masks, gloves and sanitizers at the polling stations. In Belgrade, people could be seen largely respecting social distancing rules, and many wore masks. Authorities have said that voting was no more risky than going to a shop or any other closed space.

Serbia reported 91 new virus cases and one more death on Sunday, bringing the country’s pandemic death toll to 261.

A former extreme nationalist, Vucic briefly served as information minister in the government of late strongman Slobodan Milosevic during the 1990s wars in the Balkans. While Vucic now says he seeks European Union membership for Serbia, critics warn that democratic freedoms have eroded since his party came to power in 2012.

The autocratic president has called on his supporters to vote in large numbers to get a strong mandate for internationally mediated peace negotiations on the future of Serbia’s breakaway former province of Kosovo.

A U.S.-brokered Kosovo-Serbia summit is to he held in Washington on June 27, while EU officials have announced plans to restart Brussels-mediated negotiations.

Serbia has refused to recognize Kosovo’s independence and has the support of Russia and China in the dispute.

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