Serbian opposition parties unite against Vucic's populists

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Gen. Zdravko Ponos, a former Serbian army chief of staff who is the centrist opposition candidate for the presidency, center, sits with Vladeta Jankovic, candidate for the Belgrade mayor, right, and Marinika Tepic who heads the 'United Serbia' list for the parliamentary election, during a press conference in Belgrade, Serbia, Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. Serbias main opposition alliance has formally presented its candidates for top posts ahead of an upcoming general vote in hopes of mounting a serious challenge to the long-ruling populist administration of President Aleksandar Vucic. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

BELGRADE – Serbia's main opposition alliance on Wednesday presented its candidates for top posts ahead of a general vote in hopes of mounting a serious challenge to the long-ruling populist President Aleksandar Vucic.

Serbia's presidential and parliamentary elections, along with a municipal vote in Belgrade, the capital, are expected in early April. The vote will be held amid heightened political tensions over Vucic's increasingly authoritarian rule.

The centrist United Serbia coalition has gathered several opposition parties that decided to run together against Vucic and his right-wing Serbian Progressive Party, which has had a tight grip on power for the past decade.

Vucic's populists have faced allegations of curbing hard-won democratic freedoms and fostering hate speech against critics in the Balkan nation. Citing pressure on opponents, the main opposition parties in 2020 boycotted a parliamentary ballot.

On Wednesday, the three opposition candidates said the upcoming vote — expected to be held on April 3 — will still be far from free and fair because of Vucic's control over the mainstream media. But they promised to confront anti-opposition propaganda and produce an election victory.

“There are people throughout our country who are ready to say ‘enough,’" said Marinika Tepic, a politician who has won popularity for her efforts to reveal corruption and crime links within Vucic's party, and who heads the United Serbia list for the parliamentary election. ”United, we can do it."

Challenging Vucic for the presidency will be Zdravko Ponos, a former army general and chief of staff who served during a previous, pro-Western administration. Ponos promised to “unite Serbia” and described his presidency bid as a “patriotic duty.”

Recent public opinion surveys say Vucic and his party are still in the lead ahead of the election. Analysts say Vucic's opponents stand the biggest chance of winning in Belgrade, where opposition parties are more popular than in the rest of the country.

Vladeta Jankovic, a conservative politician and former ambassador to Britain and the Vatican, is the opposition group's candidate to be the next Belgrade mayor. He said he has decided to run, despite being 81, because of the dire situation in the country.

“Everyone should contribute to this joint effort,” he said.

Also running for seats in parliament will be an increasingly visible group of environmentalists and leftist movements who have have drawn thousands to street protests against the government, demanding faster action to combat air pollution, waste disposal and climate change. Right-wing contenders and other smaller parties and candidates will also take part.