Political parties are the most important means of political participation in Serbia. They play a central role in all political processes and limit the growing influence of new actors – social movements and civil society organizations. Despite such a dominant position, the party system itself is not particularly stable, nor do the parties enjoy a high level of trust among the citizens of Serbia.
The direct consequence of such a situation is the exceptional volatility and variability of the party scene. On the other hand, the leaders and people in the management of the parties show unusual stability. The politicians that were there at the very beginning of party pluralism are still very much part of the political scene. This superiority of leaders is reflected in intra-party relations and promotes party discipline as one of the most noticeable characteristics. Probably the strongest proof of the lack of intra-party competition is the inviolability of party leaders and the fact that the removal of the leader, and most often the founder of the party, is the exception, not the rule. This data becomes even more intriguing when we keep in mind that many parties have not changed their leaders since their establishment (some even for 30 years), regardless of the decline in popularity.
The most important characteristic of the party system in Serbia is how narrow the ideological space is. Both the vertical – value – dimension, and the relatively narrow field of the center in relation to economic issues. In other words, after the dilemma of “Kosovo or the European Union” was (temporarily) removed from the top of the agenda, the parties in Serbia did not find new fundamental dividing lines. One of the reasons why new topics do not appear is the populist wave that swept the political scene of Serbia and which put a whole range of populist topics on the agenda. This also led to the opening of old issues in a, yet again, populist way, i.e. through a premise that society is divided into hardworking people and the corrupt elite. Under the influence of populism, a cleavage arose between the old and new parties, that is, between the populist and other parties.
However, the tone for the whole system is set by the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). From the position of the dominant party, it successfully maintains its centrist and catch-all position, expanding its ideological scope more and more. The shift of the electorate from the anti-European position of the former SRS to the moderately pro-European SNS has led to a narrowing of the ideological space and a timid pro-European consensus.
There is less and less political space for new parties, for similar reasons for which the space is narrowed for both the opposition and civil society. Therefore, the prerequisite for a new party is a kind of an initial political capital – leaders who are somewhat known to the public or reliance on an ideologically close civil society. The media space is equally small for all opposition parties, with the partial exception during the election campaign. The issue of available resources is therefore of great importance for both new and old parties.
When it comes to financing, regardless of several possible sources, political parties in Serbia are, as a rule, focused on the state budget and are dependent on it for financing. Regular annual reports that parties submit to the Anti-Corruption Agency show that by far the largest share of revenue comes from the state – between 85% and 100% for opposition parties, and about 65% of revenue for the Progressives and 40% for the Socialists; this practice is present in regular financing, but also in the financing of election campaigns. This results in two phenomena – (1) the parties are too state-oriented, which further diminishes the importance of membership and those who support the parties, and (2) the gap between budget-funded and non-budget-funded parties increases (this becomes especially evident when a parliamentary party loses budget finances because it has not passed the census and no alternative funding model has been developed).
The second most important source of funding are individual donations. However, regardless of the sources of financing and the degree of (non)control that the state implements, the last period is also characterized by a significant disproportion of available finances. This disproportion is the result of unequal representation in the parliament, and is further strengthened by existing legal solutions.
The parties’ ties with the citizens are scarce, which is proven by the significant distrust in political institutions. Parties are not the only “culprits” here – civil society does not provide enough incentives nor does it articulate interests well enough to put pressure on the parties. The links between citizens, civil society organizations and parties are rather weak and based on one-way top-down communication. It is especially worrying that these trends have not changed since the very beginning of the multi-party system.