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Analysis 17 Feb 17

Serbian Ruling Party Faces Vucic-Nikolic Showdown

Media reports that the Serbian prime minister and president might run against each other in presidential elections could lead to public divisions within the ruling Progressive Party.

Maja Zivanovic

Aleksandar Vucic and Tomislav Nikolic at the 5th anniversary of the Progressive Party I Photo: Facebook/SNS

The Serbian Progressive Party’s main board is expected to deliver its official decision about the party’s nominee for the spring presidential elections after it meets on Friday, as confusion continued about whether the incumbent President Tomislav Nikolic will stage a surprise run for re-election.

It is expected that the Progressive Party’s main board will confirm the candidacy of Serbian Prime Minister and party leader Aleksandar Vucic.

On Thursday, most of the 185 local party boards in cities and municipalities across Serbia held sessions in which many decided to support Vucic as the party’s candidate.

The Friday session comes after a turbulent day for the party, as media reported that that President Nikolic had decided to run for another term, although the Progressive Party’s leadership had already voted to nominate its leader Vucic.

Nikolic told newspaper Kurir on Thursday that he is still waiting to reach an agreement with Vucic about his candidacy and would not make any decision before the two men spoke.

“That is what I have promised and I never break my promises, although it is clear that the Serbian Progressive Party is behaving like there is no time to wait for a deal and the joint statement which we promised to citizens,” Nikolic said.

Regional TV station N1 and Sputnik Serbia reported meanwhile that Nikolic sent a letter to Vucic expressing his wish to become leader of the Progressives and the next prime minister, in return for his support for Vucic’s presidential candidacy. BIRN could not independently verify the reports.

Analysts and politicians however suggested that Nikolic’s bid to run in the election could divide the party, with some saying it would reveal the deep splits between the Progressives’ pro-Western and pro-Russian wings.

They also said that Nikolic would have little chance of winning.

Vucic refused to comment on the reports about Nikolic, but Milos Vucevic, vice-president of the Progressives’ main board, insisted on Thursday that the party has never been more unified and that any attempt to cause divisions will fail.

“The Serbian Progressive Party has been facing various challenges, and there will always be [challenges], but none of them will make us waver,” he said.

However, Zorana Mihajlovic, Serbia’s infrastructure minister and the Progressives’ deputy president, said that if Nikolic ran for another term, it would divide the party.

“I do not want to believe that Tomislav Nikolic will turn against Serbia, the Serbian Progressive Party and Aleksandar Vucic. If this is true, that this is Nikolic’s attempt to divide the Progressives and help the opposition win [the upcoming presidential elections], that attempt will not succeed,” Mihajlovic said in a statement on Thursday.

Ivica Dacic, the leader of the Serbian Socialist Party, the junior partner in the ruling coalition, said that if Nikolic stands against Vucic, he would become an opponent of his own party.

“If Nikolic runs, what would be the difference between him and… other opponents, because their main goal is to overthrow Vucic,” Dacic said.

Political analyst Dejan Vuk Stankovic said that Nikolic's decision to run again for president was a "stab in the back" for Vucic.

"It is clear that the announcement of the candidacy is a political attack on the Serbian Progressive Party and Aleksandar Vucic, and also kind of contradictory of Nikolic, who until recently claimed that during the electoral process he will not do anything that would harm the interests of Vucic and the Progressives," Vuk Stankovic told news agency Beta on Thursday.

Journalist Zoran Panovic said on Thursday that the Progressive Party is divided into a "pro-Western and pro-Russian side", and that Nikolic could pick up support from Kremlin sympathisers.

The editor-in-chief of the weekly magazine NIN, Milan Culibrk, said that if Nikolic decides to be a candidate, it would complicate the situation for both voters and for the Progressives.

"This is the worst option for the Serbian Progressive Party," Culibrk told N1, adding that until recently it was believed that Vucic would win the election without it going to a second-round run-off.

Sociologist Jovo Bakic predicted on Thursday that Nikolic, as an independent candidate, could count on the support of just three to four per cent of voters “without the support of the party that he founded”.

Bakic told Beta news agency that Nikolic doesn’t have his own party and infrastructure, so it would be hard for him to organise a decent campaign.

Srdjan Bogosavljevic from the Ipsos marketing agency told B92 on Wednesday – before the news on Nikolic’s candidacy broke - that Vucic’s support among voters “would definitely be over 50 [per cent], or in the worst case around 50”.

But Vladimir Goati, another sociologist, told Beta that Nikolic could win ten per cent of the votes, meaning there would probably have to be a second round of voting.

“As boxing experts say, there will not be a 'knockout victory' so there will be a second round,” Goati said.

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