Updated: Tuesday, 11 March 2014 18:09 | By Agence France-Presse

Serbia's struggling opposition in battle to win back Belgrade

Belgrade voters often turn their backs on the ruling elite, a fact the struggling opposition hopes will boost its chances of winning back control of the capital, a key political battleground in Serbia.

Serbia's struggling opposition in battle to win back Belgrade

Pedestrians cross a street in Belgrade on March 10, 2014, near the former federal military headquarters destroyed during the 1999 NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia - by Andrej Isakovic

The main opposition Democratic Party (DS), trailing far behind in ratings for general polls on March 16, has set its sights on the coveted capital, which holds its local election on the same day, after a series of political blows.

Voted out of power at state level in 2012, the Democratic Party lost its key stronghold in Belgrade in September last year when the city council ousted mayor Dragan Djilas.

"Without a strong Belgrade there is no progress in Serbia," said Djilas, a pragmatic technocrat who had been mayor of the city since 2008 and is running again in the local election.

He points to a series of infrastructure projects launched during his mandate in the city which has been destroyed and rebuilt several times in its turbulent past.

From the Ottoman era to the 1999 NATO bombing campaign launched over Serbia's role in the war in Kosovo, Belgrade has survived more than 40 battles.

Situated at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, Belgrade, or the "White City" in Serbian, has for centuries played a key economic and strategic role.

The capital can provide a strong "fortress for the opposition to show the citizens how it could run the country on the state level," said media consultant Igor Vlajic.

The stakes are high, as Belgrade, with its population of 1.6 million, accounts for more than 42 percent of Serbia's industrial output. 

"For a long time, Belgrade has been considered the only city in Serbia with sufficient working capital, both from the state budget and its own income," said analyst Jelena Milic.

- 'Dwarf-like opposition' -

The ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) led by powerful Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic called early general elections in an effort to capitalise on its growing popularity after starting EU membership talks in January.

A resounding win would give the SNS a strong mandate to carry out painful and tough reforms on the path to joining the 28-nation bloc.

Vucic's party is also hoping to consolidate power by securing control of the capital -- where it has never won elections.

All polls have shown the SNS is likely to win more than 40 percent of the vote in the general election, while the DS is trailing far behind with 10 percent.

"Compared to the ruling party, the opposition is like a dwarf faced with a giant," analyst Vladimir Goati said. 

It remains to be seen what this means for the election in Belgrade, where infrastructure development has become a key battling point.

Ravaged time and again, Belgrade still "needs more than just a makeover," said architect Miladin Milosavljevic.

The city today is a vibrant mix of narrow streets with early 20th century houses in desperate need of renovation and wide avenues packed with flashy new shopping malls.

Only last year more than 520,000 foreigners flocked to the Serbian capital -- one quarter of all tourists visiting Serbia -- for its relaxed atmosphere and unusual juxtaposition of Oriental style and Socialist-era architecture.

Ousted mayor Djilas has promised to continue his plan to build an underground railway network in a city bedevilled by traffic jams.

Meanwhile the architect Milosavljevic said Vucic's party "has only showed us scale models for projects that look like a fairy tale," he added.

In January, Vucic announced the multi-billion euro construction of the "Belgrade on Water" project to develop the city's waterfront with residential buildings, offices, shopping malls, hotels and a spectacular, 180-meter high "Belgrade Tower." 

It was to be built in seven years in partnership with a United Arab Emirates company headed by Mohammed El-Abbar, known for the construction of Dubai's Burj Khalifa, currently the world's tallest tower.

The zone up for development -- 90 hectares on the shores of the Sava -- has for decades been neglected, with abandoned railway tracks, empty Socialist-era warehouses and a number of forgotten river boats rusting near the docks.

But the project has been fiercely criticised both by experts and the opposition.

"First we have to bring running water to hundreds of households in Belgrade and only then we can plan such luxurious project," said another opposition mayoral candidate, Suzana Grubjesic.

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