We can also interpret the peaceful election campaign as a change in the strategy of the majority of election participants since political parties are aware that the elections ahead of us will not bring about political changes.
The continuation of the election campaign for the June elections at the beginning of May caused concern among all well-meaning citizens. Tensions, torches and football hooligan aesthetics, incidents and hunger strikes have coloured the political life in the first days after the state of emergency was lifted. This, on the other hand, has augmented political cynicism and distrust of citizens in the election process. While everyone analyzed the consequences that such an atmosphere could lead to, political parties changed their agendas, adjusted their behaviour and redefined their campaigns almost overnight.
What exactly happened and how should we interpret the consequences of a peaceful, often monotonous campaign on the turnout and election results on June 21?
First of all, it would be naive to believe that politicians changed their personal traits overnight, gave up conflicting behaviour and started a positive campaign. The reasons for the change in behaviour should be looked for in the political incentive, i.e. the assessment that a dirty campaign does not contribute to the solidification of their political positions. To simplify the matter even more, conflicts do not bring better ratings. Politicians have recognized that most voters want political stability and economic solutions, not football hooligan folklore. For the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), the primary goal is for the elections to run as peacefully as possible and with as few irregularities as possible, because questioning the legitimacy of the election process does not suit them in any way. On the other hand, the opposition parties, that will not boycott the election, want to show political responsibility and present themselves as a different political alternative, while the opposition that has decided to boycott the elections must amortize criticism accusing it of running a dirty campaign against those parties that have decided to participate in the election, especially against the Free Citizens’ Movement (PSG) and its leader, Sergej Trifunović.
All these factors have made the campaign quiet, positively oriented, and at times even boring, but creatively limited and with cheap production (with the exception of the SNS campaign in which serious investments have been made). The first especially applies to the opposition because they lack a budget for a more meaningful campaign. Although this choice of a campaign may not have been the first choice for political actors or the fruit of their goodwill, we know that in politics only consequences and not intentions count, and here the consequences are such that they provide voters with a relatively peaceful voting environment.
However, the lukewarm boring campaign also has two major political consequences for the turnout and results in the upcoming elections, and this is rarely talked about in public. In terms of turnout, this kind of campaign means that “extremes” are avoided, i.e. it is difficult to expect a low turnout (drastically lower than the average from 2012) and too high of turnout, i.e. over 55% of registered voters which was the average in the last several election cycles. A drastically low turnout is not realistic because the SNS is able to mobilize its own voters as they have strong party identification and vote security (greater than 90%), while fragmented political competition in these elections (there are perhaps over 20 electoral lists) allows it to reach to voter “niches” or to those reservoirs of votes that “mainstream” parties cannot reach (extreme right-wing parties, for example, can mobilize voters who would not have been made an offer by “mainstream” parties).
“The history of elections in Serbia has shown that an uncertain election outcome, as a rule of thumb, means a dynamic campaign and high turnout”
The turnout between 50% and 55% suits more or less every party that will participate in the election. For the SNS, it means that the election boycott failed, i.e. that the legitimacy of the future government will not be questioned, and for the parties that have decided against the boycott, this means that they have a chance of go over the electoral threshold as they would have a hard time succeeding in that plan if the turnout jumped sharply. This scenario is not good news for the parties that are favouring the boycott, but it seems that reducing the voter turnout is no longer a goal in their political strategy.
A peaceful campaign also affects election results. The history of elections in Serbia has shown that an uncertain election outcome, as a rule of thumb, means a dynamic campaign and high turnout. Since the June elections are neither uncertain nor dynamic, it seems that such a campaign will mean that the SNS will not force a high result at any cost; that is a result higher than 60% because such a result calls into question the pluralism of parliamentary life. For the SNS, the objectively best result is the one that would keep them around half of the voter turnout, because at the moment, it is not in the best interest of the ruling party to extend its support beyond the one they have today. The election result that the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) could achieve is not subject to dramatic oscillations, and such a campaign, along with the proverbially interesting Ivica Dačić, can mean maintaining the trends that have been on for a long time, i.e. the SPS winning around 12% of votes. There is little room for a better result, but it is not big.
“This is a kind of a world of perpetual darkness for the opposition parties, and that is why their campaign looks like a walk on the political tightrope”
Uncertainty lies around the electoral threshold too because it is obvious that 3 or seven election participants are currently fighting for 3% of votes, with different chances of success. Certainly, SPAS (led by the positive image of its leader Aleksandar Šapić and broad coalition potential) and PSG (a combination of the charismatic leader Sergej Trifunović and a strong anti-SNS position) have the best chances, but the SRS, DJB. UDS, the Metla 2020 Movement and POKS also have a chance and are searching for that chance in this election. Since a large number of voters usually decide to vote in Serbia as the election campaign is taking place and at its photo finish, it is too early to predict what the concrete chances are for these opposition parties, especially since, in the end, several thousand votes may decide which party will cross the election threshold. Two things are certain at the moment: (1) a peaceful campaign means a moderate turnout in the elections, which increases the opposition’s chances of crossing the threshold (there is a big difference between winning 90,000 votes or have to aim at more than 100,000) and (2) a peaceful campaign reduces the possibility of mobilizing one’s own voters because there is no usual tension and strong (mutual) competition. So, the opposition parties that have decided to participate in the election are stuck between „the electoral rock and a hard place“. If they decide to go for a stronger and more confrontational campaign, they will boost the motivation of voters to go to the polls (which is good news in the first round), but it also raises the turnout which increases the number of votes needed to cross the election threshold. This is a kind of a world of perpetual darkness for the opposition parties, and that is why their campaign looks like a walk on the political tightrope.
Since the election legislation was changed on the eve of the June elections, and along with it the calculation of minority mandates (in these elections, minority election quotients will be “weighted” at 1.35), and considering that the largest minorities in Serbia (with the exception of the Roma) are well-organized and strategically ready for these elections, it would not come as a surprise if the number of minority representatives in the parliament increased compared to the 2016 convocation.
If a party decides to boycott the election, the strategically best campaign for them would be the one with a lot of negative messages and confrontation, which is a consequence of the peculiarities of an election boycott campaign in which you cannot call on voters “to support something or someone”, but rather you have to convince them that the greatest benefit for them is to “do nothing”. This is only possible if you convince the voters that their participation in the elections is a meaningless act, and in order to convince them of that, you must have a negative campaign that raises distrust in institutions and the political process. A peaceful campaign to boycott the election is good news only if it ultimately leads to low turnout, which, as I have said earlier, is hard to expect.
We can also interpret the peaceful campaign as a change in the strategy of the majority of participants because political parties are aware that the elections ahead of us will not bring political changes. The opposition is looking for a way to find different arrangements for the 2022 presidential elections, while the SNS is trying to soften the strong rhetoric that it has been insisting on for years. We can view this whole campaign as a preparation for the period that comes after these elections.
In the end, in the current circumstances, a peaceful campaign is good news for citizens and the community at large, because polarization and emotional narrative at one point have seriously threatened to bring society to the brink of an incident.
Perhaps in some different circumstances, a more polarizing and competitive campaign would be beneficial because it would involve more policies, programmes, and social divisions, rather than the personal attacks that have marked the last few months. However, in such circumstances, a peaceful environment is in the best interest of the general public in Serbia.