Freedom House said in its latest report that the state of fundamental freedoms and democratic institutions in Serbia continued to deteriorate in 2020, with no sign of improvement and the coronavirus pandemic disrupting elections and bringing new restrictions on individual freedoms.
The Nations in Transit report warned that Serbia is among the countries where the anti-democratic alternative is spreading. “Incumbents and ruling parties in central and southeastern Europe are corrupting governance and spreading anti-democratic practices. In Serbia, President Aleksandar Vucic has overseen the mainstreaming of smear campaigns and pro-government propaganda,” it said. Looking ahead to 2021, Serbia’s political system may find itself at a crossroads between continued democratic regression and the strengthening of its democratic institutions, the section of the report on Serbia said.
“For most of the year, political life—and indeed all other life—unfolded in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic,” it said and added that the parliamentary elections were moved from April to June because of the pandemic which led the authorities to impose a state of emergency. The report said that there were concerns about the vote because of the mixing of large numbers of people during the pandemic but that the boycott of the elections by most opposition parties claiming that conditions for a free and fair political competition did not exist proved to be a much bigger problem. Freedom House said that the authorities amended the electoral law and lowered the threshold to win seats in parliament from five percent to three percent of the vote to entice smaller opposition parties to field candidates. It said that the changes to the election law was introduced with almost no public debate.
“In the run-up to the elections, the electoral playing field remained firmly skewed in favor of the ruling party,” the report said. “The creation of the governing coalition that enjoyed the support of almost all Serbian legislators served to highlight the monolithic nature of the National Assembly, as a sizeable number of citizens opposed to the ruling SNS were effectively unrepresented. Moreover, the monolithic nature of the parliament seriously curtailed its ability to scrutinize the executive in practice,” the report said.
The report said that authorities initially downplayed the dangers of the pandemic and then declared a state of emergency which included a curfew and severe restrictions some of which were disputed by lawyers, including the president’s right to declare the state of emergency instead of parliament. “The sidelining of the parliament on the state-of-emergency proclamation is just one example of the personalization of power in Vucic’s hands, which contributed to the degradation of Serbia’s democratic institutions,” the report said.
It said that independent media came under additional pressure over their reporting with the arrest of journalist Ana Lalic over her reporting on working conditions at the Vojvodina Clinical Center as the most extreme example. Media outlets also noted that the authorities had underreported the number of COVID-19 deaths.
The report said that Serbia is among countries where civil society shines brightest. “Through persistent protests, activists in Serbia have elevated environmental issues to the national agenda, leading the state to scrap plans for destructive hydroelectric power plants,” it said and added that medical staff critical of the authorities organized the United Against COVID-19 group.
No real progress was made in fighting corruption during the year. A worrying sign in this respect was the adoption of a new law in February that allows the government to exempt projects deemed to hold “strategic importance” from existing public procurement regulations.