Using the example of the Serbian Progressive Party, Dušan Spasojević shows how populism can be driven by blurred ideological standpoints. At the same time, it can occupy a centrist position in the party system and enter the political mainstream
Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti write about the three resilient myths of populism. We usually think about populists as challengers who attract attention, speak clearly about complicated issues, and motivate voters from radical ideological positions. They divide societies based on salient issues in a crusade to defeat an enemy and save the people.
However, can we think of populists who have been in power for a decade, running on a vague catch-all platform and striking a balance between the world powers? Welcome to Serbia.
After the fall of Slobodan Milošević in 2000, Serbia's nationalistic, far-right, populist Serbian Radical Party held around 30% of the vote, with no coalition potential. Following several electoral defeats, the radicals decided to de-radicalise. Party leader Vojislav Šešelj was still in the custody of the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia when, in 2008, leaders founded a new party aimed at winning elections and becoming acceptable to other parties and the international community.
The Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) was born as a moderate, pro-European, and right-wing party. Dropping the ideological baggage of wartime, it reduced the role of identity politics to moderate social conservativism. The party adopted a pro-market economic approach, while retaining populist elements to generate attention and motivate voters. Its key issue was corruption. This aided SNS's 2012 rise to power, helping it become the predominant party in 2014 under popular leader Aleksandar Vučić.
The newly formed Serbian Progressive party dropped the ideological baggage of wartime. It adopted a pro-market, socially conservative approach, yet managed to retain populist elements
In the years that followed, the SNS developed a distinctive right-wing, catch-all, and populist ideology. Its primary goal was to remain in the centre of the political/ideological space. The party always aimed to generate competition on both left- and right-wing sides, as well as on the conservative and liberal poles.
The centrist position (in spatial, not ideological terms) was crucial for party success. SNS aimed to cover as wide an ideological space as possible, often including contradictory positions. For example, it wanted to be pro-EU but to sustain good relations with Russia and China. To have an LGBT prime minister to pinkwash presidents' soft anti-LGBT rhetoric. To vote for Ukraine's territorial integrity in the UN, but not impose sanctions on Russia. To strike a balance between cooperation and conflict in the region. And to antagonise the former ruling parties and include their members in the administration.
Similar to the Hungarian and Turkish cases, populist tactics have included blame game strategies and the creation of enemies. Initially, SNS designated former ruling parties, tycoons and elites who got rich during the transition as its enemies. Later, its opponents became the independent media and civil society, framed as a 'fifth column'. Similarly, the SNS treated with disdain representatives of regulatory or oversight institutions, or even any political or social actor that tried to challenge or contain its power. Above all else, SNS emphasised the importance of elections and their results – beat us if you can!
The Serbian Progressive Party treated with disdain representatives of regulatory or oversight institutions or any political or social actor that tried to challenge or contain its power
In contrast with the old Radical party, SNS often presented international enemies of the new party in deliberately vague terms. Brussels, for example, it sometimes portrayed as not good, but Germany under Angela Merkel was a solid partner. Emmanuel Macron and Viktor Orbán, too, are friends of Serbia. Also, the 'Other' became less concrete, especially during the first few years in power. As time progressed, the Other(s) became the usual ones – Kosovo Albanians, sometimes other post-YU nations. However, whenever there has been hate speech and conflict, the regime always balances it with a narrative on cooperation and economic development.
SNS has been in power for eleven years. Authoritarian tendencies, and significant influence over the media system, have characterised its rule. It is therefore hard to gauge what Serbians truly think, and what the mainstream is.
Yet it is clear that many SNS positions are in line with the average Serbian voter’s beliefs. First, there is widespread distrust of politics and politicians, strong anti-party sentiments, and a tendency towards instant solutions to problems. Second, economically, SNS counterbalances a strong economic desire for the European Union with identity and belonging, in which it portrays other countries as better partners. This is most likely caused by the problem of Kosovo's disputed statehood. It may also be exacerbated by Russian and Chinese support for the territorial integrity of Serbia, as well as the influence of the West and NATO during the break-up of Yugoslavia.
Finally, we should not overlook the degree of authoritarianism in the country. Serbian elections are not fully free and fair, and the ruling parties have significant advantages. Different sources recently classified Serbia as both a competitive authoritarian and a hybrid regime. Domestic and international observers constantly report deterioration of electoral conditions. Media coverage of the opposition is limited, and government representatives get their messages across via friendly media outlets, which rarely challenge them.
Serbia has been an EU candidate for ten years, with hardly any progress since 2017. The EU's appeal as a democratising force is on the wane
The international dimension is also important. Serbia has been an EU candidate for ten years, with hardly any progress since 2017. However, since the Serbian government acts cooperatively during Kosovo talks and migrant crises, the international community ‘looks the other way’ regarding Serbia's authoritarian tendencies, appearing to prefer so-called stabilitocracy over democratic standards. Pragmatism, in short, loves populism. And the state of EU-Serbia relations reduces the former’s appeal as the democratising force it once was.
All this reveals contemporary populists' learning process. They avoid constant frontal confrontation with the international community (or EU), and they adapt quickly to challenges. They contain internal conflicts, and rule with less repressive methods. They do not harass the opposition, they tolerate protests, and they allow the media to be influenced by financial and legal means. In Serbia, it seems that populists have discovered how to become a stable part of their party systems.