I don’t know about you, but I’m still in shock after Serbia’s election result last Sunday. I honestly didn’t expect such a landslide. And here I am not referring to that guy who – next to parliament, government, security agencies, police, courts, largest parliamentary party, etc. – now also happens to control the Serbian presidency. Not interesting at all, frankly. No, I’m talking about that fictional candidate, Ljubiša Preletačević Beli, who not only garnered over 332,000 votes (9.44%, and third overall), but whose campaign gave the world a master-class in both integrity and efficiency. I consider this nothing less than a seismic shock which emanated from Serbia last night. And make no mistake, this is one with potentially global implications; one in which I personally believe lies the answer to the divisive populist currents presently raging across the Western Hemisphere.
In order to truly understand this political phenomenon – and I’m pretty certain that it’s the first of its kind – I invite you to come along with me to the small town where it all began almost exactly a year ago. We take a stroll down Gavrilo Princip’s street, downtown Belgrade, past the makeshift migrant camp, all the way to that rundown Lasta bus terminal. There we take line 493 to Mladenovac, roughly an hour’s drive from the capital. At 269 dinar (€2.20) the ticket is cheap by Western standards, but in Serbia it represents roughly a quarter of a young adult’s daily take home earnings. That is, that young adult who is lucky enough to have found a job in a country where the unemployment rate (aged 24-35) of 20% hides a much more haunting statistic: an employment to population ration of barely 62% (again, aged 24-35). As the creaky old bus takes us south over Avala motorway, the monotony of the ride is broken by Kosmaj mountain rising before us. Shortly after, we see Mladenovac. A post-industrial echo of Yugoslav times long gone. A town slowly reclaimed by the idyllic countryside which surrounds it.
Or so I am told.
Until last Sunday night’s ride in pitch black darkness, I have never taken the bus to Mladenovac. In fact, I have never visited the town. While I readily admit that my (diaspora) case is extreme, it does reflect the broader relationship between myopic Belgrade (center) and the rest of Serbia (periphery). And it is within this strained relationship – Belgrade’s broken promise to the rest of Serbia – that the key resides to understanding the deeper meaning and significance of Sunday night’s shock result.
Rewind to the early 2000s: the dawn of post-Milošević Serbia. While in Belgrade elites, activists, and intelligentsia were gleefully reclaiming their “rightful place” in society after a decade of Milosević’s reign, something far more sinister was taking place outside of the capital. State assets were privatized for a nickel and a dime to questionable transition profiteers; often members of the aforementioned “wronged” elites. And those “elites” too belong between quotation marks, considering their subsequent (lack of) commitment to social responsibility of the noblesse oblige kind. So, as Mlađan Dinkić was crowned Finance Minister of the Year by Euromoney magazine in 2007, privatized state owned enterprises were asset-stripped with proceeds offshored. Scores of workers lost their jobs. As the jobs disappeared from Serbia’s interior, so did the young. They flocked to Belgrade in droves, often forced to take on informal service jobs, which came with no health insurance or holidays, no social security contributions or paid sick leave, and working conditions that make Western zero-hour contracts look like a sinecure. Opportunity and welfare were promised, but almost two decades later it is glaringly obvious that the exact opposite was delivered.
This is the broader context in which Serbian voter apathy needs to be viewed. It is not a question of “explaining” to these voters the benefits of for instance EU integration or media freedoms, or the dangers of forfeiting them. No, much like we have (hopefully) learned from the Brexit and Trump insurrections, if anything it is a question of listening to them and addressing their grievances. They’ve heard all the explanations already. From socialists, from radical nationalists, then pro-EU liberals, to finally those same radical nationalists dressed up as pro-EU liberals. To add insult to injury, these refurbished troglodytes are then propped up by celebrity visits by the likes of Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroeder, Steven Seagal, and Joe Biden, each but one of whom was a vocal advocate of the depleted uranium shells still littering their fields. They have seen and heard it all, and they are not impressed. Their abstinence from voting stems from their refusal to – on top of everything – themselves tie the noose around their own necks. It is their dignity fighting back.
But of course, often enough their dignity succumbs under the weight of Serbian political reality and its medieval ways. So they vote, and when they do, it is often for whichever clique currently holds the reins of power. They do so because they are spoon-fed lies and propaganda through a media completely captured by whoever happens to rule. They do so under threats to their livelihoods. They do so because they themselves, or somebody dear to them, are physically threatened, implicitly or explicitly. Some do it because they or one of their relatives are offered a job. And in many instances, of course, their vote is simply bought or stolen. Sometimes stolen from them after they’ve passed away! Yes, stolen, dear Johannes Hahn, but you and Frau Merkel – the grandest of all props in our latest election campaign – already knew that when you pragmatically traded away our democratic freedoms for the sake of the EU’s short-term regional interests. But I will not dwell upon the current faction’s anti-democratic antics here. They only represent a more degenerate manifestation of those who preceded them – a symptom rather than cause – and as such, as individuals, they are irrelevant. I do however encourage any truly interested investigative journalist to contact their internationally acclaimed colleagues at KRIK and Insajder for a small treasure trove’s worth of excellently researched political-criminal intrigues that make House of Cards seem like a sitcom.
I’m staring out the bus window. There are no street-lights, so there’s little to see. I’m wondering how I’ll describe the road to Mladenovac for this piece I am going to start drafting the following morning. Does it even matter for the story that began around a year ago, in that same town I’m trying to find in the dark? There and then something seemingly insignificant – but in light of Sunday’s events nothing short of extraordinary – happened. A spark of artistic revolt, which lit a fuse, which last Sunday spectacularly detonated underneath Serbia’s entrenched power structures. A spark of revolt that now has both you and me scrambling to make sense of it all. At the time in Mladenovac, in the run-up to local elections, everybody knew that the game of votes was rigged. Everybody knew that playing along is tantamount to making a fool of yourself, or much worse, to becoming a Serbian politician. Everybody except Luka Maksimović – a former wide receiver, Greco-Roman wrestler, and student of communication sciences – and his group of friends, who were blissfully oblivious to this received wisdom. They created the persona of Ljubiša Preletačević Beli – a satirical candidate representing everything wrong with Serbia’s political class – and started playing around. Playing politics that is. But in their game, they restacked the odds in their favor. Through satire and comedy, they banalized the local power structures that have up until then obediently delivered to Belgrade, at the expense of Mladenovac’s inhabitants. Lies were parried with even more outrageous lies. Threats were countered with messages of lightheartedness. They didn’t directly target anybody in particular – their manners and vocabulary deserve a nothing short of a PG rating – but they held up a mirror to Serbia’s political class. And a good look in the mirror is exactly what this bunch desperately needed.
Intuitively they seem to have channeled Antonio de Melo’s well-known precept: “How does one cope with darkness? Not with one’s fist. The more you fight darkness, the more real it becomes to you, and the more you exhaust yourself. You don’t chase darkness out of the room with a broom, you turn on the light.” In this case, that light was humor: the eternal refuge of the powerless and abandoned. It was also their general attitude towards their political opponents, and electoral process as a whole, which was characterized by good manners and even better art performances. This is best summarized by one of their slogans “Bez sikiracije”, which in my opinion belongs right up there with “Just do it” and “Think different”. Roughly translated it is a slangish way of saying “No worries” or “No anguish”, it is a hat tip to a similarly inspired Bosnian hip-hop track. When they called on their supporters to relax, forget their worries, and play along, they weren’t just “playing it cool”. Rather they challenged the notion, crammed down the throats of Serbia’s electorate by politicians of all colors over the past two decades, that they must accept power structures they despise, power structures that have shown nothing but disdain for them and their plight, out of fear something even worse to come. Or more pointedly: they rejected the idea that one should vote out of fear.
And with this act of lighthearted rebellion they managed nothing less than to break that cycle of fear, and thus suffering, kept in perpetual motion by Serbia’s political class. A cycle that especially in smaller Serbian communities tends to leave scars that remain long after party allegiances change. Luka and his friends probably won’t be able to brief you on the key benefits of Serbia’s EU integration path, or give you an elevator pitch on the impact of media capture on government accountability. But they saw with their own eyes, and felt far more acutely than those deciding their fate be they from Belgrade, or Berlin, Brussels, and Washington, the destructive effects of these particratic wars on the cohesion of their own community. They assailed the core of the problem, but vowed not to create further divisions; to at first do no harm. In other words: they turned on the light.
And as they did, something magical (sic) began to happen: the inhabitants of Mladenovac slowly joined them. They laughed along at their local politicians, and sang along with their songs. More significantly, they gave them their confidence to the tune of 5,200 votes: roughly a fifth of all cast. So in order to understand the significance of Sunday’s outcome, one must first come to appreciate the archetypal story that unfolded last April in Mladenovac. Somewhere, in a forgotten town like so many others decorating Serbia’s post-industrial wasteland, a band of childhood friends rejected all common knowledge, jokingly slung their sling, and gave Goliath a black eye. In doing so they illuminated to the rest of us the chink in his armor. They demonstrated that it is possible to win at this game, but only by refusing to play by the script which the rest of us have taken for granted. To paraphrase the Dalai Lama: by thoroughly understanding the rules, they managed to break them effectively. Also, they looked like they were having a blast doing so.
Equally if not more important is what they subsequently did with the confidence which was granted to them. Now, this is where anybody harboring the ambition of forming an educated opinion about this movement needs to start paying close attention, lest they want to run the risk of making a fool of themselves, as many domestic commentators have already rushed to do. Ironically, Beli the farcical candidate and his campaign team have shown more respect for both the voter and the formal (rather than informal) electoral rules than most if not all other political actors. Before collecting signatures for their group’s candidacy in Mladenovac’s local elections, they publicly committed to a list of delegates, to my knowledge hitherto unheard of in Serbian politics. And these delegates – in their own words: “serious, (mostly) educated, locally recognizable, and politically untainted citizens” – subsequently took on those public office abuses which are strangling their community: misappropriation of local budgets, public employment along party lines, creation of public jobs for party soldiers, dismal water quality, etc. They maintained this modus operandi into the presidential election campaign a year later. They declined their share of the public election fund – 29 million Serbian dinar (€230,000) – in a country where laundering (public) money is barely frowned upon. The poor don’t take from the poor, they said. Instead they used the donations they received (around €10,000) most of which were spent on notaries that verified the 12,640 signatures supporting Beli’s candidacy. In typical fashion, the Beli campaign team was the first to pay these same notaries’ fees, under the slogan “The poor are always the first to pay (the price)!“ By the way, we know how they spent the money, because they volunteered this information; pretty revolutionary stuff here in Serbia. Luka also voluntarily reported all of his assets, as well as the assets of his family to KRIK. This list goes on, but it all adds up to one simple observation: they showed how political actors shouldn’t behave through satire, but they demonstrated how they should by example.
This is why “protest vote” takes one only so far when attempting understand how a “comedy candidate”, running a campaign on a non-existent budget, received almost 10% of all votes cast (around 332,000). To put a positive spin on Peter Thiel’s otherwise astute observation on Trump’s electoral success in spite of his perpetual conflict with facts: Beli’s “supporters take him seriously, but not literally”. Or even more to the point, now in the words of one middle-aged Mladenovac local I spoke to last Sunday night: “Sure they are pranksters, but they are good kids!” All the media hype translated into actual votes not because they publically ridiculed politicians, but because they did so without resorting to personal attacks and underhanded tactics. Beli and his team gave voters back their dignity by pulling a Messi on a political class so openly aware of the fear and oppression on which their power is based, that they are willing to go to any lengths – usually involving more fear and oppression, they are not very creative – in order to hold on to their positions and mandates.
Oh and what a Messi they pulled. It is as if by refusing to accept the rules of the game, they forced the game to bend to theirs. Those local commentators – seasoned experts at fighting darkness with brooms – who casually dismissed them as pranksters and spoilers somehow conveniently failed to notice that these kids from Mladenovac managed to accomplish what none of them came even close to achieving over the past five years: they’ve put Serbia’s political reality on the radar of the New York Times (and again), Associated Press, Washington Post, BBC, and countless other international media. They also schooled scores of marketing and PR experts, by effectively running a campaign in which every vote won cost them around €0.03. Considering that it is said the going rate for buying a vote in Serbia is 1000 dinar (€8), we can comfortably add in performance management terms, that they even put Serbia’s corrupt electoral strategists to shame by delivering a return on investment 25,000% higher (twenty five thousand percent, a factor 250). These kids memed their way into the international spotlight, and they did so in style.
To the world as whole – and in particular liberals still struggling to find a way back into the hearts and minds of certain less privileged segments of society – they sent a much more important message. We all know that the divisive populists currently making a run for various offices worldwide are doing little more than disingenuously tapping into popular disillusionment with the political class. What Luka and his friends have shown is that while this disenchantment cannot be suppressed by communications agencies and expensive media campaigns – its drivers are too real – it is possible to use it to unite rather than divide. It is possible to come together around a common goal, and truly take back our communities, without coming down on those weaker than us (e.g. immigrants, minorities). I will even go one step further and say that the second variant is by far the more attractive one. For the sake of example, it is often said that part of Nigel Farage’s (United Kingdom Independence Party) appeal is that he seems like a guy you can find in your local pub. And truth be told, the idea of having a pint with Nigel does seem far less awkward than having one with George Osborne. But honestly now, would you rather listen to a half-cut Nigel Farage rant on about migrants and Darth Junker for hours, than crash Beli’s election night party? The point is that when only granted the choice between supporting an elite out of touch with ordinary people’s (legitimate) grievances, and a divisive populist hell-bent on usurping them, many voters will understandably pick the latter. When that choice becomes one between that same populist, and a movement based on taking on those identical issues, and the callous power structures driving them, but in a manner that relieves from fear rather than exacerbate it, our need to belong and to care for each other will prevail, and we will choose the latter. Yes, I am an eternal optimist who believes that deep down inside nobody wants to be a bad guy, and that fear truly is the root of all evil. Also, I haven’t seen anybody come up with a better plan than: “How about we get a high net-worth celebrity to go on primetime TV, put on a funny wig, and call those voters stupid and racist?”
Finally, there it is: Mladenovac. We arrive too late to attend Beli’s victory performance where he claims 67.97% of the votes, but at least we’ll be able to join in on the celebrations. Our host, a member of the campaign team, explains how back in Yugoslav days Mladenovac was an industrial town, host to eight manufacturing plants. Now only one remains. As we make our way to the campaign’s headquarters – a large house right outside of Mladenovac which belongs to the parents of a campaign team member – our offer to pick up two six packs and some smokes is gratefully accepted. The party is running low on both. Later I learned that every single member of the core team had their phones cut off at one point during the campaign, not by sinister security agencies, but because of unpaid bills. Lean performance management gurus: you can now go ahead and eat your hearts out. When we arrive at our destination, my friend is greeted at the door by one of the bouncers that works at a Belgrade club she frequents. Inside, the party is on. The beers disappear momentarily, and rakija in coffee mugs is passed around. With a cordon of news crews lighting up one side of the house, Beli and his deputy Prilepak troll the president elect’s crockodile tear victory speech by pretending to break down in tears themselves on a live side-by-side transmission. The transmission is quickly – but to N1’s credit not quickly enough – cut and Beli and Prilepak come back into the house to offer the newly arrived guests the last batch of sarmas. Then the campaign’s song comes on, and as we throw shapes pretending to be able to sing, tens of thousands of young voters, many of whom cast their votes for the first time, log onto the live stream. Tonight, they too feel like winners, and as a token of their appreciation they shower their very own president – the president of “serious fooling around” – with likes and shares.
The rakija starts to kick in with a vengeance, I come to realize that, despite the overall outcome of the election, tomorrow I will wake up with a heavy head rather than a heavy heart.
That’s just fine, because a heavy head I can handle with a couple of aspirins.