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Serbia to hold early polls on March 16

President Tomislav Nikolic on Wednesday said Serbia will hold early parliamentary polls on March 16, as the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) seeks to capitalise on support after starting EU membership talks.

BELGRADE: President Tomislav Nikolic on Wednesday said Serbia will hold early parliamentary polls on March 16, as the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) seeks to capitalise on support after starting EU membership talks.

"I have just signed the decree to dissolve parliament, paving the way for parliamentary elections to be held on March 16," Nikolic said during a brief ceremony broadcast live on state television.

"A lot of work is ahead of us, among them painful and tough reforms aimed at improving the lives of our citizens," he added.

On January 21, Serbia set off on a long road towards the EU entry, which Belgrade officials hoped could come by 2020.

On Sunday, the SNS, the senior partner in Serbia's ruling coalition, called for early polls to be held.

The SNS leader, powerful Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, told supporters that "the time has come to give account of what we have done."

Analysts say the SNS wants to build on its growing popularity after beginning the accession talks with Brussels.

"All elections, especially early ones, are a blow to the economy and the process of reforms," said economic analyst Ljubomir Madzar.

"The only positive effect could be gaining of a strong political force in power," he added.

The latest surveys show that the SNS could count on the support of 48 per cent of voters if elections were held now.

The second-largest party, the opposition Democratic Party (DS), stands at around 13 per cent in the polls.

Trailing further behind is the Socialist Party of Serbia, a junior partner in the ruling coalition, with 11 per cent.

Since taking power, the government has significantly improved relations with long-time foe Kosovo, which has in turn paved the way for Serbia to start talks on EU membership.

The SNS and the Socialists joined forces after general elections in May 2012, which saw a defeat of the pro-European Democratic party whose leader Boris Tadic lost presidential race to Nikolic.

Elections will stall necessary reforms

But strongly trumpeted economic reforms have failed to gain ground, prompting the resignation of Economy Minister Sasa Radulovic last week.

Radulovic said his move was motivated by a lack of government support for a set of laws aimed at cutting down public administration jobs, estimated at almost half of Serbia's work force of 1.7 million.

Economic analyst Milan Culibrk said that, despite wide popularity, Dacic's cabinet failed to fulfil any of its promises given at the start of its mandate in July 2012.

"Although urgent measures to cut down the budget deficit were announced, the 2014 deficit will be the highest ever," Culibrk said.

"Instead of radical cuts in the bureaucracy, there are still more than 700,000 people employed in the public sector," he said.

The public deficit has been increasing for the last four years and public debt exceeds 60 per cent of GDP.

Economist Sasa Djogovic said the elections "will further delay reforms."

"Another six months will be lost because of the elections... and we will pay a higher price for necessary reforms," he warned.

Serbia has also failed to complete privatisation and put its debt-ridden public companies in order.

Its economy suffered another blow earlier this month as ratings agency Fitch downgraded its status from "BB-" to "B+" highlighting weak political will to introduce the unpopular structural reforms.

The unemployment rate has reached 20.1 per cent in the Balkan country with a population of 7.1 million and the average monthly salary is estimated at 400 euros (US$540).

Although many in the country estimate that normalisation of relations with breakaway Kosovo -- a key EU condition for further accession steps -- will be the main stumbling block in the talks, 51 per cent of citizens support membership in the 28-member bloc, compared to 22 per cent against.

68 per cent of 1,038 people polled in a December survey conducted by Serbia's EU integration office said economic reforms are crucial for the Balkan country's future.

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