The incumbent pro-European Union populists swept Serbia's parliamentary election in a landslide Sunday, leaving pro-Russia nationalists far behind, according to preliminary unofficial results. The triumph by Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic's Progressive Party means Serbia will continue on its path toward EU membership despite opposition from right-wing parties, which seek close ties with traditional Slavic ally Russia instead. "The election results today represent a strong support to our democracy, reforms and European integration," Vucic told supporters in his victory speech at party headquarters in Belgrade. "We have shown to ourselves and the world that Serbia is united in an attempt for a better future."
The preliminary results released by the independent CESiD polling agency show the Progressives winning 49 percent of the vote and their Socialists coalition partner with 11 percent. Two ultra-nationalist parties lagged far behind, the Radical Party with 8 percent and DSS-Dveri with 5 percent. Three pro-Western opposition parties fragmented their support and were each hovering around the 5 percent threshold needed to win seats in parliament. The polling firm based its projections on the actual vote count at representative polling stations. The first official results are expected later this week. Djordje Vukovic from CESiD said there might be slight changes from the preliminary results, but he said it's clear that the Progressives will end up with a landslide victory. "We are not happy, but that is what the people decided. Our struggle will continue. Most important for us is that we have regained the parliamentary status," said the Radical Party's firebrand leader Vojislav Seselj, speaking to supporters at his party's Belgrade headquarters. Seselj, who was acquitted of war crimes last month by an international tribunal in the Hague, Netherlands, will be returning to parliament after the Radical Party apparently cleared the threshold needed for parliamentary representation. Once the strongest party in Serbia, the Radicals failed to win any seats in the last election in 2014 at a time Seselj was on trial before the tribunal. Other opposition parties claimed there were irregularities in Sunday's election. "We don't have the democracy that we had before 2012," said former Serbian President Boris Tadic, leader of the pro-Western Social Democrats.
Vucic called the election two years early, saying he needed a new mandate to press ahead with tough reforms demanded by the EU at a time Serbia is facing deep economic and social problems. But his opponents said he really wanted to tighten his autocratic rule and win another four-year mandate while he is still popular. Pre-election polls predicted the Progressives would win most of the 250 seats in parliament. Turnout was around 53 percent one hour before polls closed, slightly higher than in 2014 when Vucic's party also swept the vote. Vucic was once an extreme nationalist himself, but has transformed into a pro-EU reformer. There had been fears in the West before the vote that the election could tilt Serbia further to the right and toward Russia. Any rekindling of nationalism in the Balkans is considered more dangerous than in the rest of Eastern Europe because of the wars in the 1990s that claimed around 100,000 lives.
Western countries have sought to pacify Balkan nations by keeping them on track for EU membership. "I am almost certain that we will carry on our European integration process and we will have to speed up the process of (EU) accession," Vucic said after voting earlier Sunday. "And of course, preserve our traditional ties with our friends (Russia) in the east." Vucic added that he was "not going to make any compromises with right-wing political parties" over the issue of EU membership which he considered to be in the strategic long-term interests of the Serbian people.
Seselj had called the vote a de-facto referendum on whether Serbia joins the "enemy" EU, or turns to some kind of a union with "our traditional ally Russia." While pro-Russian sentiments in Serbia are traditionally high because of close historic and cultural ties, many Serbs also want to see their country reach the economic and democratic standards of the rich EU nations. "Our membership in the European Union is something we have to fight for, because there is no other way for us," said Blazo Mitric, a Belgrade resident, upon casting his vote.