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Tensions rise in Serbia as people cast ballots in municipal election

Pre-election billboard showing Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, right, and Belgrade mayor candidate Aleksandar Sapic in Belgrade, Serbia, Wednesday, May 29, 2024.
Pre-election billboard showing Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, right, and Belgrade mayor candidate Aleksandar Sapic in Belgrade, Serbia, Wednesday, May 29, 2024. Copyright Associated Press
Copyright Associated Press
By Euronews with AP
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Tensions soared in Serbia's municipal election on Sunday in key cities and towns as ruling populists tried to cement their already vast hold on power.

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Incidents were reported in the capital Belgrade and in the northern city of Novi Sad where opposition groups said the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, or SNS, organised election centres during Sunday's balloting.

The election in Belgrade was a rerun vote following reports of widespread irregularities last December that triggered political tensions and accusations that President Aleksandar Vucic's SNS rigged the vote.

Populists have denied the accusations. Also up for grabs on Sunday are more than 80 municipal councils and city halls in two other key cities - the northern Novi Sad and Nis in the south.

Skirmishes were reported at a Novi Sad fair complex when opposition members tried to enter the hall packed with SNS activists and police moved in to stop them. The N1 regional television reported that ruling party activists later brought out boxes with unidentified content through a back exit and left.

Police said in a statement they were attacked in Novi Sad but “there have been no serious incidents” so far on the election day.

Opposition officials said those “call centres” are involved in bribing voters to cast their ballots in favour of the ruling party.

The existence of a similar SNS-run centre was earlier on Sunday reported also in a Belgrade sports hall while in a downtown area opposition activists tried to enter a restaurant where they said the ruling party activists were camped.

The SNS party said their activists' activities were in accordance with the law. Senior official Ana Brnabic, who is a former prime minister and current parliament speaker, said on X social media platform that the party organised “call centres” to contact supporters and urge them to turn out to vote.

“So what?” said Brnabic. “We have a party with strong infrastructure and well-organised. What is the problem?”

The ruling populists in December were accused by the opposition and foreign observers of busing in voters from other areas in Serbia and from neighbouring Bosnia, which they have denied. Similar reports were published by the opposition supporters on social media on Sunday.

The populists have presented themselves as the only political force capable of running the country and keeping it safe at a time of global turmoil.

Vučić is formally seeking to have his troubled nation join the European Union but has steadily drifted away from pro-EU democracy values while nurturing close ties with Russia and China. The populists have presented themselves as the only political force capable of running the country and keeping it safe at a time of global turmoil.

Pro-Western opposition groups have accused Vučić of crime links, rampant corruption and a crackdown on democracy. But a wide alliance that was behind big anti-government street protests last year has splintered and turned against each other, fueling apathy among Serbia's 6.5 million voters.

Vucic’s governing party is seen as the favourite on Sunday. It has for more than a decade controlled all levels of power in Serbia, so if the opposition manages to wrestle away at least some of the local councils, not to mention in big cities, it would be a significant shift.

The opposition groups split over whether to take part in the ballot or press on with demands for free and fair elections. Those running in Belgrade campaign under the slogan: “We choose to fight!”

International election observers have said that the December election, which also included a parliamentary vote, was held in “unjust conditions,” in part because of the president’s involvement and systemic advantages for the ruling party.

A report by an office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the ballot was “marred by harsh rhetoric, bias in the media, pressure on public sector employees and misuse of public resources.”

Local election observers have said that not much has changed for the Sunday vote despite a set of recommendations listed by international observers after the December balloting.

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