Serbia calls early election for April

 04 Mar 2016 - 17:56

Serbia calls early election for April
This file photo taken on December 28, 2003 shows Tomislav Nikolic, then leader of the ultra-nationalist SRS-Serbian Radical Party, holding a news conference at the party headquarters in Belgrade. Serbia's president on March 4, 2016 called an early election for late April, with pro-European Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic expected to strengthen his grip on power in the Balkan country's third vote in four years. "I have just signed the act on the dissolution of parliament and the decision to call elections on April 24," President Tomislav Nikolic said in a televised announcement. AFP, DIMITAR DILKOFF


Belgrade: Serbia's president on Friday called an early parliamentary election for April, with pro-European Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic expected to strengthen his grip on power in the Balkan country's third vote in four years.

President Tomislav Nikolic said in a televised announcement that he had signed an act to dissolve parliament and called an election for April 24, two years before polls have to be held under the Serbian constitution.

The announcement comes amid a crisis over the unprecedented wave of refugees entering Europe, and Vucic has won praise for Serbia's treatment of the tens of thousands that have passed through its territory since last year.

In a request for the early vote sent to Nikolic on Thursday, Vucic's government said it required a clear mandate to complete reforms that would allow the country of seven million people to join the European Union.

"This election will be a referendum on whether Serbia wants to be a modern, European country by 2020," the 45-year-old premier said in a televised interview earlier this week.

Critics say the election is a bid to consolidate and prolong Vucic's power, accusing him of missing opportunities to reform, curtailing media freedom and failing to tackle corruption properly.

His Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) currently holds an absolute majority in parliament with 158 of 250 seats and looks set to win support from around half of voters in April, according to the latest opinion polls.

A former ultranationalist and notorious information minister to strongman Slobodan Milosevic, Vucic became premier in 2014 and has remodelled himself as a reformist dedicated to joining the EU.

"There are very strong opinions about him on both sides," said James Ker-Lindsay, a Balkans specialist at the London School of Economics.

Ker-Lindsay stressed the importance of quickly forming a new government and avoiding Serbia's tendency towards "endless discussions" after an election, which can lead to months in limbo.

- The path to Europe -

In December Brussels opened the first chapters in negotiations for Serbia to join the EU, but the 28-member bloc has ruled out any enlargement before 2020.

Improved relations with Kosovo -- which declared independence from Serbia in 2008 -- are crucial to both Belgrade and Pristina's bids to become EU member states.

The two sides fought a war in the late 1990s and Belgrade does not recognise the sovereignty of the largely ethnic Albanian former province, where recent deals with Serbia have sparked protests.

Serbia has progressed from its isolated status during the conflict-ridden Milosevic era, but it remains one of Europe's poorest nations and is still lacking in public sector reforms and foreign investment.

The economy has slipped in and out of recession in recent years, growing 0.8 percent last year.

Srdjan Bogosavljevic, with market research company Ipsos in Serbia, said calling elections now avoided having to hold polls in 2018, when the country will be under more pressure to meet pre-conditions to EU accession.

He said recent opinion polls "show that Vucic has not lost his popularity, on the contrary most think that Serbia has taken the right direction".