Serbia ruling nationalist party claims victory in capital vote

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 ruling nationalist party claimed victory in the capital Belgrade on Sunday in a rerun of local elections, nearly six months after allegations of fraud in a previous poll sparked weeks of protests.

With official results yet to be announced, Serbia's president and SNS party leader Aleksandar Vucic claimed a commanding victory in the capital and almost all other municipalities around the country where votes were held.

The SNS had narrowly won the December vote with 49 seats in the city council but was unable to form a municipal government, prompting a new election.

"We had a majority even after December 17 in Belgrade. But we felt that wasn't enough legitimacy because some others didn't want to form a coalition with us. Now, we will have 62 or 63 seats" out of 110 on the city council, Vucic said on Sunday.

Shortly after Vucic's speech, fireworks resounded in the capital.

According to preliminary results based on exit polls published by the Center for Free Elections and Democracy (CeSID) and Ipsos, the SNS came out on top with 53 percent of the vote in Belgrade followed by Kreni Promeni ("Go for Change"), a newcomer to the opposition, with 17 percent of the vote.

Turnout, meanwhile, was lower than in December -- two hours before the polls closed at 6:00 pm (1600 GMT), 37 percent of voters in the capital had cast their ballots, compared with over 45 percent in December, according to the only official turnout figures published that day.

Unlike last year's elections, SNS was pitted against a divided opposition, with some boycotting the vote while others tried to attract voters.

Savo Manojlovic, leader of Go For Change and its Belgrade mayoral candidate, expressed satisfaction with the results, but added: "We have nothing to celebrate in a country with such electoral conditions."

"This is a great success for these people, all the supervisors, candidates, and supporters who stood by us in impossible conditions with a budget where we didn't have a single billboard", Manojlovic said.

- Irregularities reported -

Local NGOs CRTA and CeSID, observing the voting on Sunday, reported dozens of irregularities, including vote-buying or double registration of voters.

The observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will share their initial report on the vote Monday morning.

Opposition activists on social media accused the SNS of organizing a call centre to buy votes in Novi Sad, Serbia's second largest city.

Local media reported that when activists tried to enter the building, clashes broke out and tear gas was used.

International observers at December's polls, including ones from the OSCE's ODIHR democratic institutions division and the European Union, alleged irregularities including vote-buying and ballot-stuffing.

The claims fuelled weeks of protest rallies outside government offices.

Serbia's top court rejected an opposition move to have the vote annulled.

- 'National survival' -

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

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

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.

That followed allegations made in December that Serbs from neighbouring Bosnia had been bussed into Belgrade to cast ballots illegally.

The controversy over December's vote appeared to have limited campaigning and public interest in the elections.

"I saw more calls to boycott the elections than to participate in them," Dimitrije Secujski, a student from Belgrade, told AFP after voting.

During campaigning, "I didn't notice any action like there was for the previous elections in December."