Can comedy counter democratic backsliding in Serbia? by Isabela Karibjanian @ Brown University
He has a trademark white suit, a “man bun,” and nearly 10% of the vote in Serbia’s most recent presidential election. Could a satirical presidential candidate re-energize a movement to counter democratic backsliding in Serbia?
The quality of Serbian democracy has steadily declined over the past decade. To voice their dissatisfaction with Serbia’s dysfunctional institutions, lack of accountability, and political power grabs, some voters turned to an unlikely source in the most recent presidential election: Ljubisa ‘Beli’ Preletacevic, or simply, “Beli”. His name itself is a critique of Serbian politics: “Preletacevic” comments on the proclivity of Serbian politicians to switch parties for their own gain (such as now-president Aleksandar Vucic) and his nickname (“Beli”) cheekily refers to claims of benevolence and paternalism.
Beli is portrayed by a 25-year-old communications-student-turned-comedian fed up with the current state of democracy in Serbia. A satirical portrayal of Serbian politicians, Beli is known for humorous music videos and empty populist claims. His rallies attracted thousands of supporters, and his political party Sarmu probo nisi (“You haven’t tasted the sarma”) has demonstrated electoral success at the municipality level in the city of Mladenovac, winning 12 seats. His distinct persona contributed to his taking 9.4% of the presidential vote in 2017, beating several candidates including former UN General Assembly President, Vuk Jeremic.
Although some dismiss the impact of a spoof candidate taking less 10% of the vote, Beli’s existence and moderate success speaks to a larger crisis in Serbian democracy and possibly the start of a new democratic opposition movement.
Rather than vote for a traditional candidate, 9.4% of the Serbian electorate chose to vote for a character that tells the truth about the ills of the country’s government through comedy. The team behind Beli and his followers recognize Serbia’s rampant clientelism, malfunctioning mechanisms of accountability, infringements on constitutionally-prescribed protections, as well as the seizure of the democratic apparatus by now-President Aleksandar Vucic’s SNS party. A vote for Beli was a kind of protest vote against the current Serbian democratic system that enables the ruling party to manipulate and take control of all institutions of governance. But it was also a vote for the hope of a more democratic Serbia in the future.
A fragile democracy in decline
Serbian democracy has faced challenges since its inception in the 1990s. Slobodan Milosevic, “Europe’s Last Dictator”, won Serbia’s first elections, manipulated the armed forces, parliament, judiciary, elections, and the media to accomplish complete control according to Marlene Spoerri. Since then, there have been moments of democratic revival, such as in 2000 when the Serbian Democratic Opposition pushed Milosevic out of office through peaceful and electoral means, or 2006 when a constitutional rewrite occurred. However, these moments had mixed legacies and did not necessarily ensure democratic consolidation. Wojiech Sadurski notes in Democratization and the European Union: Comparing Central and Eastern European Post-Communist Countries that the constitution of 2006 provides for human and minority rights, but also organizes the judicial and parliamentary systems in a way that allows for their political manipulation by ruling parties.
President Vucic’s SNS party has systematically consolidated control over the state apparatus, and has contributed to a shrinking environment for independent media. Through primarily constitutional means, and by working within the existing legal frameworks, Vucic’s power grabs exemplify Nancy Bermeo’s concept of executive aggrandizement and Ozan O. Varol’s “stealth authoritarianism”. Vucic and the SNS use ambiguities within the constitution to retool institutions to favor their objectives, for instance, and apply uneven taxes on media outlets to push the landscape to be more pro-regime, curating the information the electorate receives.
Also endogenous to the Serbian political landscape is a political culture that favors strongmen who rely on personality politics. Yugoslav President Tito, Milosevic, and now Vucic, fit this mold, claiming that Serbians’ belief in their politicians alone would be enough to turn the country’s fortunes around. For example, during the campaign Vucic traveled to the city of Nis to “meet local residents to try to resolve their problems”, a move dismissed by some as a publicity stunt.
“A new politician is here to save you!” Beli’s relative success
Beli interrogates that political culture of strongmen with intentionally empty promises of his own to save the Serbian people. By exaggerating populist appeals of other Serbian leaders, Beli exposes their absurdity. For example, Beli has claimed, “I’ll give jobs to everyone, and big pensions to everyone!” and “I’m going to move the sea here because we need a beach! I will be a great uniter of the Balkans and we will be a superpower!”
Beli pinpoints the ridiculousness within the supposedly democratic system and of those who keep electing politicians that serve themselves more than the electorate. In effect, he has been able to tap into the frustrations of many who crave the democratic Serbia that seemed not far out of reach in the 2000s.
Interestingly, Beli also uses the brand of personalized politics that those he seeks to oppose rely upon. As he satirizes this model, Beli himself becomes an iconographic leader, the singular face of hope and change for his supporters. Though his supporters are in on the joke, Beli and his party can also be seen as a last bastion of hope for democratic revival in the Serbian state. His supporters see themselves as among the few who have the courage to speak truthfully (albeit through satire) about the current democratic landscape in Serbia. Though many currently dismiss his movement, if it gains greater traction, the SNS could manipulate institutions further to ensure its electoral failure.
Beli appeals to some populists tactics, as defined by Jan-Werner Muller in What is Populism?, such as criticizing the Serbian political elites, and claiming to represent the true desires of the Serbian population that craves democracy. Unlike those he satirizes, Beli advocates pluralism. His platform critiques the media landscape and the democratic structures of his country like a populist leader would, but his populist movement does not contain the xenophobic or exclusionary rhetoric found in most others. Beli’s populism is not opposed to constitutionalist value. On the contrary, as Beli noted in a Facebook video in response to those claiming he had no platform, promoting the intentions of the 2006 Constitution is his principal goal.
Preventing further erosion?
Are Beli’s music videos and his satirical party enough to reverse Serbia’s current course of democratic backsliding? Probably not on their own.
Their success as compared to the traditional Serbian opposition parties in this election, however, is telling. The party recently won seats in a municipal election, and the councilors now serving are dedicated to increased government transparency and promoting democratic norms. Through incremental victories such as this, Beli’s new opposition movement can achieve some small changes. That said, the ruling SNS party is not likely to cede significant power any time soon, and has shown that it has no qualms about manipulating institutions and elections to retain control over the government apparatus. The SNS purposefully keeps the space for discontent and public opposition small, but it is in this small area that Beli’s party can gain traction.
Satire candidates elsewhere have been known to rally the electorate around issues often ignored by prevailing discourse. In the most recent UK parliamentary elections, for example, candidate Lord Buckethead launched a high-profile campaign against incumbent PM Teresa May. Though his rhetoric was more absurdist than Beli’s, couched in claims about being an intergalactic space lord, his criticisms of May’s Brexit plans similarly resonated with voters.
Though Serbia’s democratic landscape is decidedly bleak, perhaps a 25-year-old university student could be the face of a defiant new opposition. Though immense work is needed to repair Serbia’s democratic institutions – including rebuilding the decimated media landscape and instituting stronger checks and balances so that the executive branch is not all-powerful – at least Beli is re-igniting a conversation about improving the current state of affairs in the country.
*Photo by Jovan Marković, “Belgrade – Night Panorama Timelapse – CC”, Creative Commons 2.0 License.