Democracy Is More Than Just Elections

In last five years in Serbia the dominant political actor is conservative Serbian Progressive Party (SPP). In this period the opposition was hit by the defeat from which it hasn’t recovered until today and it does not represent substantial alternative to the current regime.

Most of them, like Democratic Party (DP), already participated in the government and led political course that was rooted in the neoliberal measures. SPP as a ruling party, led by Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić, constantly repeats that they articulate this course much better and, in fact, they are doing so. In last five years Serbian society has been harshly hit by austerity measures.

These measures are being justified as a “pledge for the future”. Recent presidential elections were permeated by this discourse. Ruling party framed the elections as a specific referendum – do we want to continue with the “reforms” and carry out the whole process until the end, with promised bright future ahead, or we want to go back? The referendum character of these elections was clear when Aleksandar Vučić was announced as presidential candidate of the ruling party. For the sake of clarification, have in mind that in Serbian political system the role of President is mostly ceremonial and that the real power lies in the hands of Prime Minister.  Obviously, estimation was that no other candidate delegated by the ruling party was going to have an easy task of winning the elections. And this estimation was the right one – Vučić won 55% of votes, ensuring the victory in the first round.

All in all, eleven candidates entered the electoral process. One of important observations is that nationalist candidates didn’t manage to collect an important number of votes. For example Vojislav Šešelj, leader of ultra nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRP), collected around 160.000 votes or 4,5% and thus won fifth place in the general standings.

The most serious opponent for Aleksandar Vučić was former ombudsman Saša Janković. Janković was supported by several opposition parties, but he approached the elections as non-partisan candidate. He argued for the rule of law, emphasizing the corruption and pledging for bigger influence of citizens on the state decisions. Janković was represented as a candidate of “decent” Serbia, mostly supported by middle class population and wide range of civil society organizations, intellectuals, artists, etc. He managed to gain just above 16% of votes. 

The biggest surprise for these elections was the figure of Luka Maksimović and his alter-ego Ljubiša Preletačević “Beli”.[1] The mixture of comedy and the critique of political system managed to provide more than 9% of votes for “Beli”. With this support he took third place in the general standings, and the fact that this 26 year old guy from a small town near Belgrade managed to collect significantly more votes than some politicians that have career of 26 years in the political sphere can tell us a lot about the situation in Serbia.

First of all, it is still important to emphasize that just around 50% of people go out and vote. No candidate managed to articulate political position that could mobilize a significantly bigger number of people than in the previous parliamentary elections for example. Above all none of the candidates delivered demands that attack the neoliberal course of Aleksandar Vučić. The critique of the current government is still articulated through the lens of corruption. The foundation of the dominant political and economic paradigm stays unshaken. On the other hand, the figure of “Beli” and his ability to start tremendous mobilization with modest funds and no infrastructure shows that a lot of people yearn for new people and new approaches. “Beli” is not the solution, but he is a sign of how rotten the political system in Serbia is.

This is not the end

A day after the elections, in the wake of news about substantial irregularities that happened during the elections, protest gatherings began to emerge throughout the country. Spontaneously announced on Facebook these protests carried out thousands of people on the streets of Belgrade, Novi Sad, Čačak, Niš, and other cities.

The population of protesters mostly consists of young people. The majority of slogans that are being shouted are directed to Vučić and corrupted government. Currently protests are predominantly being wrapped in “non-ideological” envelope. On the other hand the government and government-affiliated mainstream media are representing protesters as “Sorosoids” and blames opposition for fusing the flame of unrest.

The left-wing organizations and individuals are present on the streets, and that is most clear in Novi Sad where the protests were initiated by students organized through Students movement Novi Sad, an organization that struggles for free education. But at this point it is hard to say in which direction this unrest is going to develop since it is visible that right-wing organizations are trying to impose themselves as relevant factor in the gatherings. As the protests started all of a sudden it is possible that in the same prompt way they can change course or disappear. Since the Left in Serbia is not a strong political force, the most important question is: will these developments open the political space for it to become a stronger and more relevant actor in Serbian society.


[1] The last name Preletačević is an allusion to the not so rare practice of Serbian politicians to skip from one party to another if this “transfer” benefits their career; Preletačević is derived from the verb preletati meaning fly over.