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#CallSerbia: Presidential Elections: A »White Knight« Challenging the System?

This year’s presidential elections on April 2nd in Serbia are getting quite peculiar. In the time when nationalist and populist movements are on the rise, Serbia has a wacky situation with a fictional candidate being the unexpected challenge for the ruling party, ranking high in opinion polls. What do young people think about the candidates and how do they see Serbian future? We are activating our European network and asking three young voters to explain their choice.

Vucic’s Viral Campaign

Aleksandar Vucic billboard in city center (Photo: Milena Tatalovic)

According to all estimates indisputable winner of elections will be current prime minister Vucic from the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) . He opened his campaign with a video that quickly became viral on social networks. It shows him as  a passenger in a plane flown by two pilots fighting around the steering wheel, because they cannot agree in what direction to fly. The plane is tilting left and right, and the passengers soon fall out of their seats. That`s when the current prime minister is flinched from slumber realizing that it has all been a bad dream. His message is that this flight could be the worst nightmare for Serbia if people do not entrust management of the country to him. Serbia, it implies, is on a steady course with his leadership and we should continue with him as a president.

The opposition on the other hand is divided amongst several candidates. One person that attracts big support is former national ombudsman and pro-Western liberal Sasa Jankovic. His candidature was preceded by ” Apel 100“, – the document that was signed by a hundred Serbian intellectuals, in which they practically asked him to run. Jankovic promises that he will be protector of law and constitution. But even though his campaign is strong and involves a lot of writers, artists and public figures, critics say that  he is too elitist and fails to reach indecisive voters.

Ljubisa Preletacevic Beli: A Satirical Figure

The most unusual candidate for presidency is fictional and walks on stage on a white horse in a white suit, dark coats and hipster haircut. He carries Serbian woolen knitted stockings sometimes pulled up in pants, combining humor and seriousness, tradition and modernity. His catchy slogans “Only Strongly” accompanied by “The poor strikes back” you can hear these days from almost anyone younger than 40 years who has access to social networks. The person behind the fictional Ljubisa Preletacevic Beli is Luka Maksimovic, 25 years old, student, comedian.

Even his “stage surname”  Preletacevic is a satirical derivate for a politician who switches political parties for personal gains. Hardly anyone in Serbia knows for what he stands concerning topics like EU, NATO, Kosovo, corruption and other currently burning issues. So far we know that “he will steal but also give to the poor” and that “Russia should be treated as a close cousin, one you meet once in two months“. Analysts explain his explosive popularity as a type of rebellion against current political establishment. His followers are primarily young people, who communicate well with his satirical political style. For them he symbolizes new policy and a new generation that wants change, and a reason not to flee country in search for a better future. 

From Local Joke to Presidential Contender

Ljubisa Preletacevic Beli (Photo: Facebook page – Ljubisa Preletacevic Beli)

Ljubisa Preletacevic Beli first appeared last year in the small town Mladenovac, as candidate of a Citizen Movement (like NGO, not a party) called “Hit it hard – Beli“. First it started as a joke but then Preletacevic was persuaded to run for local elections. They won 20 % of votes in their town. The 13 members from “Hit it Hard – Beli” in Mladenovac government include Preletacevic, but also independent activists (intellectuals) determined to help change the situation in their town. In their eyes, they serve as a control mechanism for the work of the local authorities.

He decided to take part in presidential elections just a week before the deadline for submission of supporter’s signatures on March 12. He started asking people on Facebook and YouTube for support and people basically stood in lines for hours waiting to sign for him. Serbia’s Electoral Commission (RIK) spent hours debating whether Beli’s documentation, with almost 13,000 signatures of supporters, was complete. The live stream of the RIK meeting became an instant sensation in Serbia’s social media, with 390,000 people watching it. Finally, they decided that he can enter the race.

It is believed that if he wins he will gather educated people around himself to help him doing the job as a President Just like he did in Mladenovac with his group. But he did not say that officially. In one rare serious interview he said that the goal of all of this is to inspire young and indecisive voters to go out and vote. 

Voter’s Choices: a “Really Strong” vs. a “Fabulously Seriously Foolish” Candidate

Is there hope for Serbian society? We spoke with three young voters about their reasons to trust one of these candidates and how they see the future for the Serbian youth. Nikola Marinkovic is a 30-year old active member of the SNS party. He studied sociology in Belgrade and currently works as a school board member in his home town Lazarevac. Our second interviewee is 24-year old Nemanja Raicevic, a mechanical technician and a student from miners town Majdanpek. And there is Isidora Puric, a 28-year old ecology analyst from Belgrade.

Exploring Individual Perspectives

Who are you voting for and why?

NIKOLA:  I`m voting for Aleksandar Vucic. The SNS party is a ruling party for a number of years and has a parliamentary majority. Vucic is also current Serbian prime minister. He has done a lot of important things for this country. He brought big companies, he kept unemployment under control, and the national economics are quite good now.

NEMANJA: I`m voting for Ljubisa Preletacevic Beli. No matter how absurd that sounds he is the only one in the political scene in Serbia that I see as the alternative. Besides, this young man is a “new blood”, with a clean past, unlike many today’s politicians. I believe that Ljubisa is the only one who can change or at least encourage the change of our rotten political system in Serbia.

ISIDORA: For Jankovic. For the first time I see someone I want to vote for and not someone who is a “lesser evil”. A man who does not shout while talking, answers questions and respects his interlocutors. And he loves animals. 

Election Outcomes and Personal Impacts

Nikola believes that Aleksandar Vucic will be new president (Photo: private)

What would a success of your candidate mean for you personally, and what for life and well-being of the Serbian youth?

NIKOLA: For me, Vucis’s election victory would mean prosperity and a chance on a better job. Better chances for young people to find better jobs. We are choosing in what direction will Serbia move on. We are a society in transition which did not have much opportunity to give young people quality life in means of education, travel, practical training. And I see that already there is an opportunity for dual education, studying abroad, scholarships. Young people can expect better future in comparison with the past years.

NEMANJA:  For me personally, and I believe for the rest of the young people in Serbia, Beli`s win would mean the return of hope in a better tomorrow. We could gradually “reset” the entire political scene and start re-building a state and system with young and educated people.

ISIDORA: For me Jankovic election victory would mean that I have a president I am not ashamed of. As for the youth … I believe he will persuades at least 5% of young people to stay in this country, for a start.

Anticipating Election Outcomes

What would be the worst outcome of the election for you?

NIKOLA: To be completely honest, I still don`t think about the worst scenario. I`m still waiting for 2nd April when I will see voter turnout and the result. We have a really strong candidate Vucic on one side, and a series of weak candidates on opposition, like Sasa Jankovic, Vuk Jeremic  and Vojislav Seselj (Serbian Radical Party). If opposition had only one candidate maybe we could think about worst outcome of elections.  

NEMANJA: The worst scenario would be that the candidate of a ruling parliamentary party (SNS) becomes president. During last years he proved in numerous occasions that he is treating the state as a private property. Not only he but his party also.

ISIDORA: Vucic. Because this country is ruled by complete tyrant addicted to power. The oppression of freedom of speech, expression and art as well as the abolition of the right to work if you are not in his party. If he wins all of this issues could be tripled.

Addressing Serbia’s Challenges: Perspectives from Voters

In your opinion what are the biggest problems of Serbian society, and how do you expect for president to solve them?

Isidora supports Sasa Jankovic in his run for a President (Photo: Private)

NIKOLA: Our society has a lot of problems, we haven`t successfully crossed the transitional period. These problems culminated in one moment andgovernment passed two decrees in order to preserve public finances. One was taxation of wages in the public sector and the other one was prohibition of employment in the public sector for two years. The other decree created one of the main problem, and that is unemployment of young people. Also the economic revitalization is extremely difficult and painful process.

We had extremely strong companies, but many have fallen into bankruptcy and did not survive transition period. Our prime minister, future president (I hope), has really ambitious plans. The essence of his campaign is visit to the production facilities of our country, unlike other candidates. Third big problem is education. Young people should have a better opportunity for learning. Dual education is really important for young people and that is something SNS party stands for.

“Where do I Even Start?”

NEMANJA: Where do I even start? This country has so many problems that it’s difficult to select few. The biggest one for sure is corruption and employment of politically eligible people. In order to get a job you have to be a member of a party. I expect from the president to solve this problems with encouraging a stronger implementation of the law by government institutions.

ISIDORA: Health, education and judiciary. There was a time when we had the best people in this areas and now we have nothing. And these are the pillars of society. Then there is crime, corruption and blackmail. I would expect from president to put an end to illegal activities in the above three areas.

Serbia’s Path: European Integration or Populist Shift?

Should the future president continue with European integration or should he gave in a wave of populist movements that shook the Old Continent in the past year?

NIKOLA: Because of campaign and pressure at the moment, a little bit of Anti EU atmosphere is present. I strongly believe that we are the part of Europe and should be a member of EU. Throughout the history Serbia was on numerous occasion key player in helping other European nations. There is also that pro Russian orientation, which is fine, and we have friendly relations with Russia, but our place is in Europe. I believe that Vucic will continue pro EU politics because that’s the only way for Serbia now.

NEMANJA: I personally think that European integration should be suspended. I think that EU is a failed project where the two or three strongest states have the main say in everything. All other states are in an inferior position. In that case all the talk about equality is futile. Serbia needs to focus on itself and “its own yard”. On the other hand, I believe that all key issues for one country are to be decided in a referendum.

ISIDORA: I think that the President is the one who should decide on what is best for our country. I think that’s the only issue I’m completely indecisive about. There are really good and really bad things with the EU.                                               

Ljubisa Preletacevic Beli   

Nemanja sees Preletacevic as the only alternative (Photo: Private)

How do you see the candidacy of Ljubisa Preletacevic Beli and do you think that he is a new “voice of young” or “betraying voters”?

NIKOLA: Luka Maksimovic (an. Preletacevic Beli) is a young person that impressed quite a number of voters on previous local elections. But you know, what is going on in “your own backyard” does not necessarily mean that it will be transferred to the entire country. You are popular in your municipality, you are a local “dude”, but to run for a president you have to have serious campaign and program, and he has none.

I see that young people are quite thrilled with the emergence of new face. This person is making fun of current political scene. It`s not bad that he happened to politics in Serbia. I do believe that he will “wake up the dormant and young voters”. But to run for president you have to have a money and campaigning is not cheap. I also believe that he is created person from a third movement or party just in order to increase voter turnout.

A Wake-Up Call or a Distraction

NEMANJA: His candidature no matter how silly and satirical, is giving a glimpse of hope that this people is finally waking up from coma. Coma that lasts for past twenty years. On the other hand it is one more indicator that shows how far we`ve come as a society if we are ready to vote for a fictional character. How messed up are we if our hopes lie in an imaginary politician?  These days I see on internet that he did become the voice of young and betrayed voters. It`s engaging so many young people to take an active part and vote. On the end I believe that all that “joking” can turn out to be something really good for this country.

ISIDORA: Yes I do think he is! Preletacevic is fabulously seriously foolish. I think he woke up an apolitical young people and I thank him for that.