Valerie Hopkins (@Valeriein140), a Kosovo-based journalist, is a member of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.
PANCEVO, Serbia — The Serbian presidential elections are on Sunday, and the runner up is a 25-year-old parody candidate. Polls have current Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic as the front-runner by a wide margin in the 11-man race for the presidency, but the character in second place says almost as much about the political scene in the Balkan country as the wide margin between them.
That’s because it’s Luka Maksimovic, a communications student who doubles as a comedian, who has chosen to run as a parody of the ruling elites who he says have run Serbia into the ground since the collapse of Yugoslavia and the 1999 NATO bombing campaign to stop Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
Makismovic’s satirical persona, whom he calls “Ljubisa Preletatevic,” is modeled on a prototype of the corrupt Balkan politician. Barely a week after entering the race, polls gave him 11 percent of the votes, a testament to both widespread dissatisfaction with the system and lack of faith in a weak and fragmented opposition. Maksimovic wears a white suit and tie, white loafers and a hairstyle — shaved on the sides with a long man bun on top — he says was inspired by a popular TV show about the Vikings. (“They’re the real heroes,” he says.) His character’s last name connotes someone who switches positions for political or material gain. And just to add an extra note of sarcasm, he also goes by the nickname “Beli” (“white”), referring to his alleged purity (or lack thereof).
Maksimovic’s campaign hasn’t bought any billboards or leaflets. Instead he’s been driving around the country in a 1999 Opel Corso with a megaphone, satirizing the other candidates’ campaign promises. “If you want to live like counts, vote for Beli! I am the only light at the end of the tunnel,” he intoned in Pancevo, a city of faded Habsburg elegance a half an hour’s drive from the capital Belgrade. “This region is so flat that you cannot sled here. Beli will make you some hills so you can enjoy proper sledding,” he says, explaining that whatever other politicians offer, he will promise three times more.
As he walks around the town, teenage girls shriek for selfies. Elderly men in suits shake his hand. People of all ages emerge from shops, holding up their phones to make videos and photos.
Maksimovic’s political career started one year ago, when he and some friends put up a joke campaign advertisement for local elections in his former industrial hometown of Mladenovac, which he likens to a “Serbian Detroit.”
“We are representatives of the generation born when the multi-party political system was introduced to Serbia,” they say in the video, in which Beli rides a white horse and carries a scepter made from a curtain rod. “We’ve been witnessing the consequences of meaningless politics our entire lives. That’s why we think it is necessary to take that system to its absurd conclusion.” They surprisingly won over 20 percent of the votes and 12 members of his party, roughly translated as “You Haven’t Tried the Stuffed Cabbage,” are now in the local assembly. Their main initiative so far has been to raise concern about the quality of local drinking water. The authorities initially responded by questioning some of the party members, accusing them of spreading panic. But the tests bore out their concerns, and the water has now been deemed unsafe to drink.
Maksimovic’s message has resonated with Serbians who feel left behind since the collapse of the socialist Yugoslavia and the state-sponsored jobs and factories with it, in a country with one of the highest rates of income inequality and poverty in Europe.
“I am a young, honest man who decided to oppose the system,” says Maksimovic, in a rare moment out of character. “The cool part is that we are proof that people can start to be active even with very little resources. … The people just feel like they’ve had enough and need someone new.”
One of his voters, Tijana Krstic, 40, agrees. “All of the political leaders in the last 30 years have been the same,” said Krstic, who attended an impromptu rally for Maksimovic in Zrenjanin, a city in northeastern Serbia, with her daughter.
Political analyst Vuk Vuksanovic says the Serbian electorate is tired and resentful. The post-Milosevic-era, he says, “did not bring functional democracy with rule of law and visible improvement of living standards, but instead only electoral democracy with ineffective institutions and an incompetent public administration, coupled with a bad economy, corruption, cronyism and complete dominance of political parties over entire political spectrum.” Maksimovic’s character, he says, offers a way for people to vent at the system, including the opposition, which is largely regarded as ineffectual.
Vucic, who has close to 50 percent of the votes according to some polls, may likely win handily, and in so doing will consolidate control over Serbia’s political institutions. Like many of the other candidates, Vucic has been in politics since the 1990s, when he was Milosevic’s information minister, and until a few years ago he was high in the command of the Serbian Radical Party, whose leader, Vojislav Seselj, spent more than a decade on trial for war crimes the Hague. Now back in Serbia, Seselj is also a candidate in the elections, in fourth place with approximately 8 percent.
Vucic, who still exerts tremendous informal control over the media, has renounced his former views and has cast himself as a pro-European reformer who delivers the financial reforms and negotiations with Kosovo — whose independence, declared in 2008, Serbia does not recognize — sought by Western leaders.
Maksimovic has since released numerous music videos, including a< catchy 1980s style video and a “party hymn” parodying the turbo-folk music that is popular in Serbia. In one of his most recent campaign videos on Facebook, Beli addressed critics who say he is “unserious and lacking a presidential program.”
“Here’s my program,” he says. He’s holding up a copy of the Serbian constitution.