Serbs will head to the polls again after fraud reports led to tensions during a December ballot


BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Voters in Serbia will go to the polls this weekend for a municipal vote in dozens of cities and towns, including a rerun ballot in the capital of Belgrade where ruling populists were accused of an election fraud in December.

The right-wing Serbian Progressive Party of President Aleksandar Vucic is seen as a favorite ahead of the Sunday balloting, aiming to further cement an already vast hold on power.

The populist strongman is formally seeking to have his troubled nation join the European Union but has steadily drifted away from pro-EU democracy values while nurturing close ties with Russia and China.

Vucic’s opponents remain weak. A pro-Western opposition alliance that was behind big anti-government street protests last year has splintered and turned against each other, lowering chances for an upset.

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

Some 6.5 million voters will choose local authorities in all key cities in Serbia: the capital of Belgrade, the northern regional center of Novi Sad and Nis in the south, as well as nearly 80 town halls or local councils throughout the country.

The governing party has for over a decade firmly controlled all levels of power in Serbia, so if the opposition manages to wrestle away at least some of the local councils, not to mention big cities, it would be a significant success.

Analysts, however, warn that disagreements among opposition groups have led to huge disappointment among their supporters and that voter apathy is widespread ahead of Sunday’s ballot.

WHO ARE THE KEY PLAYERS?

Governing right-wing Serbian Progressive Party is dominant. Firmly led by Vucic, the populists have presented themselves as the only political force capable of running the country and keeping it safe at a time of global turmoil.

Vucic and his party have refuted reports of widespread irregularities during the previous election that came from both international and local election observers. Populists have sought to portray an image of a strong national state defying powerful enemies in the West under Vucic’s leadership — he has featured strongly in the campaign even though this is not permitted by the law.

Pro-Western opposition groups have accused Vucic of crime links, rampant corruption and a crackdown on democracy. The opposition groups split over whether to take part in the ballot or press on with demands for free and fair elections.

Those taking part in the vote go under the slogan: “We choose to fight!”

Adding to the confusion is the fact that some opposition parties that are not competing in Belgrade are running in other cities. Analysts say this has left voters baffled.

WHAT WERE THE REPORTED IRREGULARITIES ?

International election observers have said that the December election was held in “unjust conditions,” in part because of the president’s involvement and systemic advantages for the ruling party.

The report by an office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the ballot was “marred by harsh rhetoric, bias in the media, pressure on public sector employees and misuse of public resources.”

Reports also emerged of voters from other parts of the country being bused into Belgrade to vote for the ruling party and being registered at bogus addresses.

WHAT HAS BEEN DONE TO AMEND THIS?

Nothing, according to election observers from the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability, or CRTA.

Under EU pressure, the government has formed a working group with watchdog organizations and opposition representatives. A law on voter registration has been amended but nothing really improved, CRTA’s program director Rasa Nedeljkov said.

“We have evidence to show that things that we documented in previous electoral cycle, we are documenting now” again, he said, along with “new types of pressure, manipulation, especially with those (voters) working in public sector.”

“Things are going in a really, really wrong direction,” Nedeljkov said.



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