While President Aleksandar Vucic is not on the ballot, the contest is seen as a referendum on his government.
Serbians have begun voting in parliamentary and local elections that will test the strength of the country’s governing party amid unrest over high inflation, corruption, and gun violence.
The snap elections, announced last month, will determine a new government for Serbia’s 250-seat parliament, as well as elect local councils in most municipalities.
President Aleksandar Vucic’s ruling right-wing Serbian Progressive Party (SPS), ahead by double-digits in the latest opinion polls, is widely expected to retain its rule in parliament.
However, the party faces challenging municipal races in the capital, Belgrade, particularly from a loose coalition of opposition parties and candidates running under the “Serbia Against Violence” banner.
While Vucic is not on the ballot, the contest is largely seen as a referendum on his government and rule.
‘Serbia Against Violence’
Vucic and his SPS party have been rattled this year by antigovernment protests that brought hundreds of thousands to the streets and led to the formation of the “Serbia Against Violence” alliance challenging his party’s rule.
The demonstrations were first sparked by back-to-back mass shootings in May that killed 18 people, including nine children.
But they quickly morphed into broader antigovernment rallies, with critics expressing anger over rising inflation and perceived government corruption.
Vucic has repeatedly dismissed his critics and the protests as a foreign plot, warning that Serbia would be directionless without his leadership.
“It’s not about me leaving power, but about them destroying everything,” he told supporters at a recent rally.
“It would take us 20 years to fix everything … That’s why we’ll beat them more convincingly than ever.”
Vucic has been omnipresent in the run-up to Sunday’s vote – plastered on billboards and skyscrapers and the focus of wall-to-wall coverage on news channels.
To blunt the hard edges of rising prices ahead of the polls, Vucic unleashed a barrage of state spending – increasing pensions and handing out cash to the elderly.
The president has also promised to double average monthly salaries in the coming years while also upping pensions.
Vucic has used his more than a decade in power to consolidate control over the levers of power, including de facto control over the media.
Opposition parties and rights watchdogs accuse Vucic and the SNS of voter bribery, stifling media freedoms, violence against opponents, corruption, and ties with organised crime. He and his allies deny these allegations.
The contest comes less than two years after the last round of presidential and parliamentary polls, which saw Vucic and the SNS tighten their grip on power.
Serbia’s next government will have to navigate a series of challenges at home and abroad, especially as it seeks European Union membership.
As it continues accession talks, the EU is pressuring Serbia to normalise ties with Kosovo, its former predominantly Albanian province that declared independence in 2008, and introduce sanctions on Russia. At home, Serbia is being asked to stamp out corruption and organised crime, as well as to liberalise its economy.