In this photo taken on Wednesday, June 17, 2020, Opposition Leader Dragan Djilas gestures during an interview with the Associated Press, in Belgrade, Serbia, Wednesday, June 17, 2020. A Serbian opposition leader whose group is boycotting the country’s parliamentary election on Sunday says taking part in the vote amid the coronaviorus pandemic and without free media would only legitimize what he called a “hoax vote.” (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

Serbia's opposition to boycott vote held during pandemic

June 18, 2020 - 5:03 am

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — A Serbian opposition leader whose group is boycotting the country's parliamentary election says taking part in the vote amid the coronaviorus pandemic and without free media in the Balkan country would only legitimize what he called a “hoax vote.”

Dragan Djilas, the leader of the pro-boycott Union for Serbia coalition, told The Associated Press that Sunday's vote is being held despite health risks and a lack of democratic standards for the campaign.

Most of the main opposition parties will boycott the vote because of what they say is Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s iron grip on the country's media and the electoral process, as well as potential coronavirus infection hazards at voting stations.

The boycott means Vucic’s right-wing Serbian Progressive party will emerge as an overwhelming winner and continue its eight years of political dominance. Vucic and his allies have denounced the boycott, saying it includes parties that would not get enough votes even to make it into Serbia’s 250-seat parliament. All the seats are up for grabs. Vucic's party now has by far the most seats in parliament with 104. The next are his allied Socialists with 22.

Although Serbia is facing a spike in new coronavirus cases, the populist leader claims the virus spread is under control and that masks will be made available for voters at polling stations.

Serbia went from having very strict lockdown measures to a near-total lifting of the government’s emergency rules in early June. Opponents say Vucic eased the restrictions so he could hold the election, which originally was scheduled for April and cancelled because of the pandemic, in order to cement his grip on power.

“At the start the COVID-19 pandemic, our president said all will be OK if we take a shot of brandy every day,” Djilas said Wednesday in an interview. “And then he introduced the toughest possible lockdown measures, including an 84-hour curfew. Those older than 65 were kept indoors for 35 days.”

“Then the measures were lifted as if nothing has happened. It’s unbelievable,” he said.

Serbia is now seeing an infection spike after mass gatherings were allowed without people being instructed to keep social distance or wear masks.

On June 1, Serbia had 18 new virus cases. On Wednesday, there were 96. Many peg the surge to the mass gatherings that have been allowed, including a soccer match in Belgrade that was attended by 20,000 people — the largest gathering in Europe in recent months. Other nations such as Germany, Spain, Italy and Britain have had soccer clubs play in empty stadiums.

“What led to the boycott by most of the opposition is the fact that we in reality have no elections,” Djilas said. “For democratic elections, you have to have conditions for people to hear something different and freely express themselves.”

“Not a single of those conditions has been met,” said Djilas, who is a frequent target of smear campaigns by the pro-government tabloids. “Media is not only closed for us, but it is used to attack people who think differently.”

In its annual report published in April, human rights watchdog Freedom House listed Serbia among “hybrid regimes” in which power is based on authoritarianism and can no longer be considered a democratic state. Serbian officials have vehemently rejected the report, saying it’s based on wrong research and criteria.

European Parliament members Tanja Fajon and Vladimir Bilcik, who before the vote tried to negotiate election conditions between Vucic and the opposition, said in a statement they are saddened by the boycott and urged voters to follow health and security measures on election day.

Djilas said in Serbia there will be no change without pressure on Vucic from the West.

“We don’t expect them to topple Vucic, we only want them to create conditions for free and fair elections.”

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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