Ruling populists declare victory in Serbia local vote despite opposition claims of irregularities

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia’s ruling populists declared victory at tense municipal elections in dozens of cities and towns throughout the Balkan country Sunday, including a rerun vote in the capital, Belgrade, as opposition claimed major irregularities.

The victory claim, which was likely to be confirmed by the state electoral commission, would cement the right-wing Serbian Progressive Party’s hold on power in the country that is a candidate nation for European Union membership.

Prime Minister Milos Vucevic told reporters that the party swept the election and that the victory is “pure and convincing.”

Preliminary results for each city and municipality were expected later Sunday. Official results were expected Monday.

Opposition officials said the vote was marred by major irregularities, which the governing party denied.

Incidents and skirmishes were reported in Belgrade and in the northern city of Novi Sad where opposition groups said the governing party organized “unlawful” call centers operated by their activists during Sunday’s balloting.

Election observers from the non-government Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability filed several criminal complaints over suspected organized voting, vote-buying and violations of vote secrecy, as well as presence of unauthorized persons at polling stations.

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

Also up for grabs Sunday were more than 80 municipal councils and city halls in two other key cities — the northern Novi Sad and Nis in the south.

A newcomer in the election race, Savo Manojlovic, said his opposition Move-Change party achieved a good result in Belgrade but added that “there is nothing to celebrate in the country with such election conditions.”

Dobrica Veselinovic, who was a candidate for mayor of Belgrade, said that “we saw violence, attacks, abuse, organized voting, crime, thugs” aimed at keeping the governing party in power.

The Serbian Progressive Party denied this and accused the opposition groups of attacking governing party activists and storming the party call centers. Opposition parties claim the call centers served to bribe and blackmail voters.

Vucic’s party has for more than a decade controlled all levels of power in Serbia and went into Sunday’s election as the favorite.

Opposition groups split over whether to take part in the ballot or press on with demands for free and fair elections, which weakened their chances of a success.

Vucic is formally seeking to have his troubled nation join the EU 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 Serbia and keeping it safe at a time of global turmoil.

Pro-Western opposition groups have accused Vucic of crime links, rampant corruption and a crackdown on democracy. The opposition split has helped fuel apathy among Serbia’s 6.5 million voters.

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 Organization 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.”


Associated Press writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this report.

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