Serbia reruns local elections in capital

The controversy over the first election fuelled rallies in front of government offices that rattled the capital for weeks (Andrej ISAKOVIC)
The controversy over the first election fuelled rallies in front of government offices that rattled the capital for weeks (Andrej ISAKOVIC)

Serbia's capital Belgrade on Sunday held a fresh round of voting in local elections, nearly six months after alleged irregularities and accusations of fraud marred an earlier vote.

The polls opened at 7:00 am in the capital and will close at 8:00 pm.

President Aleksandar Vucic's governing Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) is heading into the elections with momentum on its side, amid infighting in the opposition camp in recent months.

The coalition of opposition parties and candidates that campaigned under the "Serbia Against Violence" banner during elections in December proved a tough competitor to the SNS and its allies in the capital.

Belgrade remained an outlier in the election, which saw the SNS and its coalition partners win a commanding victory during parliamentary elections held on the same day.

The opposition won 43 of the 110 seats in the Belgrade municipal council, compared to the 49 secured by the SNS.

But after weeks of negotiating, the SNS was unable to form a municipal government and new elections were announced in March.

Local elections were also taking place Sunday in dozens of other municipalities around the country.

After December's elections, international observers lambasted the vote over a string of "irregularities" including "vote buying" and "ballot box stuffing", after the opposition accused the SNS of committing fraud.

The controversy fuelled rallies outside government offices during a series of protests that rattled the capital for weeks, and Serbia's top court later rejected an opposition move to have the vote annulled.

But the opposition has struggled to remain united, with fights over a possible boycott of the vote, and even the name of the coalition, fuelling divisions.

Some citizens said the controversy had contributed to decreased campaigning and public interest in the elections.

"Election campaigns didn't seem special to me considering that I saw more calls to boycott the elections than to participate in them. I didn't notice any action like there was for the previous elections in December," Dimitrije Secujski, a student from Belgrade, told AFP after voting.

The elections are being monitored by hundreds of domestic and foreign observers.

By midday, 14.3 percent of voters in the capital had turned out to vote, compared with 13.6 percent at the same point in December, according to figures published by NGOs.

Official turnout figures have not yet been released.

Some local NGOs observing the voting said dozens of irregularities had been noted as of Sunday morning, including cases of "vote buying", so-called family voting, or double registration of voters.

"I am only aware of what's happening at the places I am visiting. We are also cooperating with civil society. If we receive information, we will take that into account," said Lamberto Zannier, an Italian who heads the observation mission of the ODIHR rights body at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Belgrade elections have symbolic but also economic importance as the city generates around 40 percent of Serbia's gross domestic product.

According to the 2022 census, one-fourth of Serbia's population lives in the capital, where around 1.6 million registered voters.

- 'National survival' -

Vucic has pushed an ultra-nationalist message to rally the SNS base, already incensed by a UN General Assembly vote last month to establish an annual day of remembrance for the 1995 Srebrenica genocide.

The president himself was present at the vote in New York, where he draped himself in a Serbian flag to denounce a resolution he said would "open old wounds" and "create complete political havoc".

"The main narrative of the campaign, promoted even before the elections were announced, frames the Belgrade elections as a matter of national survival and future," the Belgrade-based Centre for Research, Transparency and Accountability said in a report.

To combat potential fraud, legislation supported by the opposition was passed in May that prohibits anyone who has moved in the last year from voting in their new constituency.

The new law follows allegations made in December that Serbs from neighbouring Bosnia had been bussed into Belgrade to cast ballots illegally.

The Serbia Against Violence movement was formed in the wake of back-to-back mass shootings in the country last year, which spurred hundreds of thousands of people to take part in rallies that morphed into anti-government protests over several months.

Vucic has tried to dismiss the criticism and protests as a foreign plot.