Presidential elections in Serbia: something new?

Photo: Nemanja Pančić / Kamerades

Will the upcoming presidential election in Serbia offer an alternative? At the beginning of the campaigns a moth ago ​opposition candidates were framing their proposals within the discourse of lesser evil – which amounts to covering the lack of actual alternatives.​ But a month after this article was published in Serbian a new candidate appeared – it remains to see what will be the developments on Sunday when voters head to the ballot boxes.

This year’s election will decide on who will be the next President of the Republic. In the midst of a destruction of democratic mechanisms, the symbolic charge given to this position comes from the fact that this is the only remaining political position which is elected directly. Many personalities were announcing their candidacies, candidates-comedians developed into serious competition, while three personalities have provided us with an idea about their pre-election appearances, campaigns and their ideological frameworks. What follows is the overview of campaigns and political positions of Aleksandar Vučić, Vuk Jeremić and Saša Janković.

Aleksandar Vučić

It is not easy to discuss the current Prime Minister’s campaigns in terms of predictions – mostly since it is unclear when a campaign ends and another begins (i.e. if it ever ends). Even if we disregard his practice for the last few years of using state media as private tools for his personal promotion, it is a complete mystery which methods will be used for this campaign’s realization, since that depends on the marketing agencies’ plan which is to create the “Aleksandar Vučić” brand. The only product we can work with for now is the infamous airplane video.

Although reactions were mostly negative, we could not claim that the video is poorly done. From the marketing point of view the video is great: everyone who watched saw it through without blinking. If it were a bad video, the marketing agency that created it would not have managed to sell it a few times: in Ukraine, Slovakia, Serbia, etc. Mastery is at hand: archetypal and explicit political plans are intertwined since the “plot” is taking place in a (hypothetical) situation in which the value judgment is already fixed and in which choosing the offered option is presented as the only solution to the otherwise hopeless situation. Trace of metalanguage enables us to consider the plan, strategy and political goal. Usage of archetypal tropes and deep ideological signifiers (order/chaos) created space for the double slogan of the campaign: the explicit and an implicit – metaslogan.

The imaginary situation of an airplane about to crash because of the argument between the pilot and the co-pilot is a perfect map of the newly conservative political ethos which starts with the supposition that the dissonant tones are to blame, and that what the society needs is order (Ordnung). Thus, Vučić, in place of “faster, better, stronger” offers the introduction of order. How to reach such a goal? Through elimination of antagonistic tendencies – those that create disorder, and it seems that one of the steps in achieving such a goal is: abolishment of the president’s direct election.1 And the political goal is the rightist La La Land – society as scared and passive passengers, leader as the savior, pilot and deliverer of order, while democracy is just a nicely institutionalized channel for acclamation.

What we are seeing is a banal reflection on multi-decade ideological foundation of political spheres in post-transitional societies: the supposed messianic task of transitional elites is the reconstruction of capitalist relations through “cleaning” of the mess made by socialism and blaming the socialist non-discipline and naughty request for emancipation and class mobility.

Vuk Jeremić

It’s not a long road between a globally ambitious and a locally mediocre candidate. Jeremić’s campaign is old news already – online advertisements have been looping for months, and its structure is also old: this candidate plays it safe on the card of civic nationalism – most general and politically emptiest big phrase in the political spectrum. Politics in Serbia has been wandering between different kinds of nationalism since the disintegration of Yugoslavia, so this candidate’s both campaign and political career can be most clearly understood as the consequence of the proliferation of nationalism with different colors.

Thus, Jeremić’s campaign is one of the substantially emptiest among tough competition: not a trace of value descriptors, just a story of a grandfather who fought in a famous WWI battle, strengthened with a subtle criticism of governmental staffing choices, and the alleged incompetency and ignorance. It seems that his metaslogan is: “Same, only a little better.”

At first sight, Jeremić aims for the downside of Serbia whose upside is reserved for Saša Janković: civic Serbia, nationalist subtype. What is interesting is the fact that not many doubt the supposition of pre-election accountants that Jeremić and Janković are aiming for different pockets of the voting body opposed to Vučić’s rule: the former is more “nationalist”, the latter more “civic”. This is a consequence of identitarian fogs, confusions and illusions since the fact that both campaigns use the same combination of tropes from the registry of generalities and famous ancestors, and the fact that a clear demarcation between these two groups cannot be easily established.

Saša Janković

He is the only candidate who identified “the left” and invited it. However, this invitation is a part of a broader one directed to “all”: the left and the right, the upper and the lower, šajkače 2 and top hats (really: how much longer can this last?) but, above all, to the mythic, “decent” Serbia. His pre-election rally was a deep disappointment: pathetic modernization of the already symbolically poor anthem (which probably had to play a role of the shabby symbolic connection between “old” and “new”), support from problematic personalities, calling on mythic “decency”, and, lastly, arrogant appearance of the leaders of two worn parties which, with their shadows, endangered the possibility of articulating alternative politics based on the foundations Janković built in the position of the ombudsman. The spirit of antimiloševićism metastasized during the rally into a collection of run-down symbolic distinctions of “us” (“decent ones”) and “them” (“indecent ones”) and other identitarian descriptors, showing the essential impotence of the “opposition” to disconnect from the identitarian anchorage where it secured itself three decades ago.

In other words, it is obvious once again that the “opposition” in Serbia is ideologically immobilized: Vučić adopted the basic mainstream and sometime oppositional narrative (“privatize!”) – and started to implement it with much more efficacy, so others are left with nothing more than to separate the “decent” from “indecent”. Thus Janković is in danger of becoming yet another identitarian candidate who counts on identification of some “decent” Serbia, since the makers of his campaign will not recognize neither the hidden cultural racism of this term nor will they recognize it as an identitarian signifier: on the contrary, they will recognize it as an advantage, elitism in relation to other citizens – convenient justification for the unjustified head in the clouds. “Decency” is thus established as a self-deceptive trick which will enable the voting body to feel superior despite the very possible defeat in the election; Noah’s ark which will carry the voting body to the next election in which, as the Democratic Party naively believes, Vučić will have no other options.

Although there was a marginal possibility that Janković will position himself as a candidate of the alternative, he seemingly opted for the formula with which he certainly will be defeated: centrist demagogy, old-fashioned campaign, unavoidable hero grandfather from WWI, compromises on sensitive issues (Kosovo and Republic of Srpska), reliance on shabby “elitism” and deceptive support of the deflated party establishment. Crucified between his own conscience and the campaign’s requests, Janković is like a swimmer who wanders into a school of sharks. Thus the association between the Democratic Party and Janković looks like a theatrical hara-kiri; swansong of the opposition constituted in the 90s; suicidal attack in a reality TV show during which he will burn out due to the forcefulness of demonstrating his own decency. But, all in all, maybe that’s for the best: final end of the opposition which grew out of the empty rightist demagogy during the nineties would be the best thing that can happen to some future opposition here.

The direct consequence of the identitarian wandering of “decent” Serbia is a chronic lack of a platform, or even the basic political orientation. And this is precisely where this candidate’s key problem is located. The ombudsman’s task is simple – follow the law. The situation becomes much more complicated when one is politically engaged, it is not enough to be principled or to “follow the law”: one must politically orient oneself not in relation to some things, but in relation to all things. Political orientation is like metaphysics – throw it out the door and it will reenter through the window.

After the critique, let’s try to point out possible trajectories through which Janković can escape the thick identitarian forest of the division between folkers and rock’n’rollers.3 If his intention is to position himself as an alternative candidate – he will must, even generally, make up his mind on life questions. Thus, particular questions he must answer are launched from the left:4

  • What is your stand on: rapid transformation of urban life into city for capital?; fast and cruel disciplination of everyday life and mechanisms which accomplish this task (communal police and police)?
  • What is to be done about the ever increasing impoverishment, unavoidable byproduct of the transformation into peripheral capitalism; speedy social reconservativization as the consequence of society’s adoption to capital’s needs?; precarization of labor and scandalous practices of private employment agency?
  • What is your stand on the “race to the bottom” – the race to decrease the price of labor in order to attract foreign investments?
  • What is your political stand on dual education?
  • What do you intend to do regarding the decrease in public services’ accessibility (healthcare, public transportation, social services, pregnancy and maternity assistance, etc.)?
  • What is your opinion about the attempt to open the question of “ownership” of the woman’s body, artificial construction of the abortion issue, as well as about the so-called family politics? What is your stand on the galloping clericalization of the society?
  • Lastly, the question of all questions: what is your position on privatization, the most important and most dangerous contemporary social process? – one that is at the root of all other problems.

These questions and requests for Janković should be read with both a certain reserve and certain instructions: the left will not be satisfied with any answer which begins and ends with “rule of law”. In case you are at the bottom of social hierarchy, it is very clear that the “rule of law”, created in capitalism, is the de facto mechanism of privileging the currently central social process – privatization.

Postscript

Photo: Beli – Samo jako!

In the meantime, another relevant presidential candidate appeared: Ljubiša Preletačević Beli aka Luka Maksimović.5 He showed up on the horizon when he won a large percentage of votes in the last local elections in the municipality of Mladenovac for parodying the grotesque local political elites. Encouraged by the discovery of the formula for attracting attention/support, he decided to try out the same strategy in the presidential election as well.

Thus Beli is slowly but surely becoming the central phenomenon. However, the critique he addresses aesthetically seems to be lacking substantially, since Beli stays within the parody of the local politicians’ decadence and grotesqueness and local ruling mechanisms without delving into the deconstruction of the connection between capital and the ruling elites, analysis of the public sector’s destruction, commodification of key spheres of life and alike: outside of aesthetic hyperbolas he has no movement, program or concrete political articulation.

All of the above does not mean that this phenomenon is politically meaningless. On the contrary: where there’s parody there’s fire, so his appearance and political practice can be understood in the context of lack of trust in democratic institutions, procedures and, most of all, political parties. This lack is so significant that even a masked clown, an alter ego, can collect an unexpectedly large number of sympathies and, most likely, votes. Labor is needed for success which would go beyond mockery and ridicule: labor needed to articulate values, goals, program and strategies. Beli identified the space, and the left need to fill this open space with left signifiers.

Translation from Serbian: Nenad Porobić

This article has been published in Serbian, February 2017.

  1. More skillful and daring analysts pointed out a year ago that Vučić had suffered a defeat in the previous parliamentary elections because he had not won the majority which would have enabled him to change this particular Constitutional clause.
  2. Traditional Serbian hats, associated with peasantry
  3. The question is practical as much as ethical: if you think that Vučić wins elections since he and his party machinery secretly dream of opanci (traditional Serbian peasants’ footwear) or because his voting body is “indecent” – you are very wrong.
  4. Some of the answers to these questions are not within the President’s domain of responsibility: however, it is important to have opinions and relatively clear picture of the direction in which society needs to move.
  5. The name Luka Maksimović uses as a politician is also a part of the parody. Preletačević refers to a person who switches parties out of self-interest
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