Serbian Elections are a Personality Show – But We Can Take it Off the Air

Serbia has a presidential election on Sunday, but can we expect any kind of substance  from the candidates? As Vid Štimac explains, the Serbian language doesn’t even have a word for “policy” . On the implications of personality-driven politics in the Balkans and a possible way out. 


Election season is upon us once again here in Serbia. Battalions of state-owned company employees are bussed around to prop up rallies organized by the ruling ‘progressive’ party, tabloid headlines demonstrate on a daily basis why libel laws were among the first scrapped by those same ‘progressives’ after they came to power in 2012, and opposition leaders oscillate between slamming each other on social media and making futile attempts to get a few sound bites through onto national frequencies.

In other words: business as usual on the Serbian political landscape.

One thing conspicuously absent from this political circus are policy discussions. Both the media and the general public don’t seem to be very interested in reporting, evaluating, and comparing various parties’ policy proposals. Debates center almost exclusively on who the particular candidate is aligned with, theories about their personal character and histories, and even their “vibe”. As a consequence, most parties’ political programs read like a college freshman’s term essay on “Contemporary Political Ideas in my Country”. One notable exception to this rule is Dosta Je Bilo (“Enough Is Enough”, a relatively new party that rails against corruption and public mismanagement, and the particracy at their roots), who laudably present a consistent set of specific policy proposals. That their proposals are not widely debated in the media however, or indeed by the electorate en large, is testimony to the fact that this state of affairs is a question of demand rather than supply. Voters ostensibly don’t care about specific policies, hence media don’t report, and politicians don’t feel like they are obliged to provide.

Usually, this is understood in terms of an underdeveloped political culture, which then leads to an extraordinary low quality of political debate on the individual level. Both phenomena are readily observable, granted, but are we not putting the cart in front of the horse here? Does the quality of our private debates perhaps not shape our collective political culture, rather than the other way around?

It stands to reason that the process through which individuals come to decide how to cast their vote is an essential, if not sufficient, determinant of any societal change. Our politicians, however double-tongued, still crave our vote, and if we were to evaluate them on the basis their programs and track record rather than the image their PR teams project, they would at the very least pay lip service to policies and proposals. In its turn this would allow for a competition of ideas, rather than personalities; of results rather than PR myths.

Simple enough, right? So why are Serbs unable to focus on substance rather than form when discussing politics?

For somebody who grew up in the Netherlands, where reading and interpreting political programs is an integral part of high school curricula, this is all very puzzling. I often debate politics and elections with my fellow Dutchies, and often enough we find common ground or at the very least clearly determine how we differ in opinion. There is no need for anybody to raise their voice. In Serbia however, the same debates quickly degenerate to a shouting contests, with each participant viciously shooting down the other’s preferred candidate. And indeed, in Serbia, I am as guilty as the next person of participating in such diatribes.

Obviously, I’m not the first to observe this phenomenon. In fact, both foreign and domestic commentators tend to attribute this difference to that convenient quasi-academic mop: culture. Those emotional south southern Slavs, they will say, are less “sober” than the protestant Dutch and their long tradition of policy debate and public management. The Serbs also love their strong leaders: from the pre-WW2 monarchs, to Tito and Milošević, and now Vučić. Witness how even Reuters recently attributed the Serbian PM’s “personal popularity” on his “firm hand”, rather than his clique’s complete capture of Serbian media. Heck, even Serbia’s assassinated Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić – a man of vision and, yes, policy ideas, if Serbia ever knew one – is hardly ever described in terms of his oft lauded “vision”. No, we have instead chosen to canonize him, rebaptize a few streets in his name, and subsequently forget most of the things he fought for. Why? The answer is always: Because Serbs.

Most leave it at that. For foreign actors, such as Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel who sees Serbia as a backward source of regional trouble best handled by an obedient strongman who will do all her bidding (e.g. migrants, Kosovo) in exchange for a free hand to do as he wishes internally, this is very convenient. Best keep those disobedient Serbs in check, the implied reasoning goes, they genuinely prefer it that way. After all, authoritarianism is in their blood. Serbian ‘intelligentsia’, or whatever is left of it after decades of relentless brain drain, in their turn embrace this stance as relief of their social responsibility, or more precisely: an apt excuse for their cynical impotence.

And to be fair, the consensus that we are a backward herd of sheep best prodded around by a heavy hand unfortunately has some empirical grounding. Take for instance Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimension model, where Serbs score a whopping 86/100 on Power Distance, a meager 25/100 on Individualism, and a staggering 92/100 in Uncertainty Avoidance; a measure of traditionalism. Put succinctly, this implies that Serbs tend to accept unequal distribution of power in society, all the while being collectivists who readily offer loyalty to a group in exchange for patronage. If this wasn’t enough, they are also very reluctant to change their ways.

So, it is what it is, right? Sure, if you for instance are of the opinion that Africa’s lack of development is due to Africans simply enjoying the easy savannah life, characterized by calorie scarce diets and high infant mortality, because, you know, it’s their ‘culture’. However, if you are a young Serbian patriot (watch out, dirty word in liberal Serbian circles!) who simply cannot accept that “things will never change for the better” such a stance obviously won’t do. And this takes us back to those discussions about policy, politics, and presidential candidates. Why are we seemingly unable to center our debates on politicians’ policy proposals and results, rather than their (perceived) personalities and (hypothetical) personal interests?

In order to understand this, I started with analyzing my own behavior in such discussions. Time and again, I would try to steer the discussion to policies and results. While my objections would be duly noted, the discussion would quickly devolve back to the aforementioned shouting match. At one point I would give in, and join in on the whipping contest, usually taking on the role of the loudest participant. Unlike the debates I have with my Dutch friends, where afterwards I feel I have either reaffirmed my own position or learned something new, debates in Serbia would leave me emotionally and intellectually drained.

While dissecting this conundrum I did what any responsible researcher would do and began using my friends as guinea pigs. I would engage in discussions about candidates and relentlessly push the discussion from personality politics, to a discussion about policies. This proved to be an extremely difficult exercise. Where in Dutch or English I would be able to eloquently deliver my argument, in Serbian I was clumsy. Where a single Dutch or English sentence would be sufficient to bring my point across, in Serbian it would require a micro-monologue. And then it dawned on me that the reason why I couldn’t express myself properly, and why my sparring partners had a hard time sticking to these talking points when I managed to, was that in the Serbian language there exists no clear distinction between policy and politics.

Allow me emphasize that: the Serbian language has no separate word for policy.

This is a problem, and a big one at that. In Serbian the word for policy and politics is the same, namely politika. To make things worse, when one uses politika colloquially in Serbian, what is often meant is party politics. One can probably hypothesize a myriad of reasons for this – with my personal favorite being that in these regions policy and politics were never truly separated – but I rather leave that discussion to historians of language, cultural anthropologist, or whoever actually studies such matters. To the argument we are developing here, much more interesting are the implications of this observation. For instance, how can one speak of policy continuity (“continuity of politics”), when the concept implies a continuation of policy when a discontinuity in politics occurs (i.e. a change of government)? More importantly however, how can we, voters, debate policy as something separate from politics, when language prohibits us from doing so? And following this train of thought: does this linguistic handicap convolute substance base discussions of political candidates to such an extent that they almost automatically devolve to debates about personalities, thereby creating this circus we call elections in Serbia?

Those of you who are already cramming their reductio ad absurdum counterarguments into 140 characters or less, I kindly refer to two theories: the idea that language restricts our thought processes, and that marginal but consistent differences on a micro level can have an enormous impact on macro outcomes. Put together they allow us to conceive a link between a linguistic handicap, and the nature of the political debate within a country, and through elections thus also the resulting socio-political reality.

The first is best captured by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous quote: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” In other words, our language shapes the nature of our experience. The American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf’s linguistic relativism applies this mode of reasoning to societal contexts and claims that “all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar.” Beyond pure theory, there is a body of empirical work supporting this hypothesis. The most colorful example is that of the Amazonian Pirahã tribe, whose language has no words for numbers. Numerical cognition tests have shown that Pirahã in fact have difficulties remembering quantities larger than three. A linguistic handicap can therefore clearly lead to a cognitive one, which in its turn has concrete practical implications: here, the inability to remember and reproduce larger quantities.

Now, am I suggesting that Serbs are incapable of understanding the concept of policy? No, I am simply pointing out that the concept of policy is not clearly defined, and that this has a tangible effect on debates about different candidates. In a heated debate about the individual merits of presidential candidates or parliamentary parties, this lack of clarity takes the punch out of any policy related argument. Moreover, policy arguments are less likely to both stick, and be followed up, even within the context of a friendly discussion. They are also much more likely to be misinterpreted – or intentionally straw-manned – as referring to politics, or even party politics, further weakening one’s position. If you are trying to convince your debating partner of your preferred candidate’s or party’s worth, you are thus much more inclined to use a different line of argumentation, and specifically one focused on the candidate’s personal characteristics or indeed (party) politics.

Now imagine hundreds of thousands daily debates, of which a large majority derails to a discussion of personality politics through the mechanism described above. If we then take into account that many voters are influenced by stimuli emanating from their immediate surroundings – or word of mouth – when deciding who to vote for, hardly a controversial claim within political and communication sciences, that voter preferences are to a large extent settled on the basis of (perceptions of) personality, rather than substance. This mechanism is both replicated, and exaggerated, by the mainstream media, as well as a political class more interested in obtaining the privilege accompanying high office, than the arduous responsibility that comes with it. This thus puts the abovementioned horse and cart in their rightful place: individual debates shapes political culture, and not the other way around. This mechanism, also called the threshold model, was first identified by American polymath Thomas Schelling in his seminal treatment of the dynamics of segregation. The concept was further developed by Stanford sociologist, and undisputed citation world champ, Mark Granovetter, and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference”. The practical implication of all this nerdiness is that large scale systemic change can be brought about by a million miniscule ones on the individual level. No, we are not bound by our “authoritarian culture”, and we can bring about change, but we need to start with ourselves.

So how do we bring about this change? The obvious first step would be to introduce a separate word for policy and start using it until it sinks in. I would suggest the word: polisa, which by the way ironically enough means insurance policy in Serbian. If “selfie” and “choker” made it into standard Serbian in record time, this should be feasible. Much more importantly however, we need to become very conscious about the way we think about politics, and indeed how we discuss it on a daily basis with those closest to us. While doing so we need to keep in mind that our language and habits are obstructing us in this effort. By talking and debating politicians’ personalities rather than proposals and results, we are only feeding the political swamp that perpetually produces one faux-savior after another, and drives so many (especially young) voters to abstain from the political process altogether.

Ironically, the only presidential candidate assailing this systemic problem head on is the 25 year old Luka Maksimović, better known by his alter ego Ljubiša Beli Preletačević: the embodiment of the archetypal Serbian messiah-politician. In the Netherlands Beli would be a comedy candidate. In Serbia however, the hilarious viral videos that praise Beli’s superhuman abilities and ascribe his appearance on the political scene to divine providence bear an uncanny resemblance to Prime Minister Vučić’s actual campaign messages. This should send chills down the spine of any reasonable voter.

In this case (political) life does seem to imitate art, albeit badly. The irony is that measured solely by the yardstick of personality and persona Beli comes out on top of all presidential candidates. Time and again, he has urged his supporters to stay civilized and positive, and has led by example, in light of consistent underhanded efforts by the ruling clique to quash his movement. His team has shown integrity and respect for the public purse – very rare commodities indeed on the Serbian political landscape – by refusing to claim their share of the public election fund (€234,000, a small fortune in Serbian terms), instead opting to fund their campaign through donations alone. He has also demonstrated his personal commitment to transparency by voluntarily sharing all of his and his relatives’ property with the (ever so brilliant) Crime and Corruption Reporting Network KRIK for their database on politicians’ assets. His whole campaign and persona are characterized by grace, not comedy or satire.

And this is where political reality begins to fold on itself. To describe Beli solely as a “comedy candidate” and “satirist”, as many foreign commentators have done is to miss the sublime message of his campaign. In his team’s own words: “A person casting their vote for Beli Preletačević has to first desire societal change within themselves.” Or as another social interventionist who liked to dress in white urged each of us: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” And so Beli the comedy candidate becomes Beli the ideal candidate. By playing into our collective fantasy better than the rest of the pack, he shows us how easily we are played by the political class. He demonstrates the importance of focusing on substance, by decisively winning the game of form. Hence, what some domestic commentators have described as the peak of political cynicism, is in fact the embodiment of a patriotic cultural intervention. And it is a true patriot we all want for president.

So as I type up these last few sentences – and these are the actual last sentences I’m putting down – I have to admit that I am left thoroughly confused by my own exposé. Initially, I decided to add a part about Beli for the sake of illustrating my central thesis, but then his presence grew from one paragraph to three, and now as I finish this piece I am slowly coming to realize:

I honestly want this young man to be my president.

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Vid Štimac

Vid was born on a snowy Sunday, in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1983, and spent his formative years loitering around Amsterdam’s canals. In 2009 he moved to Berlin where he proudly wasted public research money and colluded with evil corporations. He repatriated in 2015 in order to make his late grandfather proud; a task he still hasn’t managed to accomplish. He has been accused of being many things – econometrician, astrologer, handsome, policy evaluation expert, nuisance – most of which are true. Doesn’t divide by zero. Does tweet @VidStimac.