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Democracy Through A Sieve Of Autocracy

Almost four weeks after the Presidential elections in Serbia, (which were held on the 2nd of April) tensions among Serbians are  still very high. On the second of March 2017, the President of the Assembly of Serbia announced the Presidential elections. The first couple of days after the announcement, the Serbian media constructed a picture of a polarized Serbia. On one hand we had the Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, and onthe other the rest of the 10 candidates.  The media’s spin was such, that it presented ‘the fearless struggle’ of Vucic for the continuation of the reform process of Serbia against other candidates that are only trying to undermine all the good that the current government has done, despite the deep economic and social problems the country is facing.

Among the candidates were Sasa Jankovic, former Ombudsman, Ljubisa Preletacevic Beli – spoof character Ljubisa Preletacevic “Beli”, played by Luka Maksimovic, Vuk Jeremic, former Minister of Internal Affairs and candidate for United Nations Secretary-General, as well as Vojislav Seselj – founder and president of the far-right Serbian Radical Party, against whom proceedings were led before the ICTY (International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) on the indictment of “eight counts of crimes against humanity and six counts of violations of the laws or customs of war for his alleged participation in a joint criminal enterprise”.

Prime Minister Vucic, who is the leader of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party has been active in politics since 1992, when he was in the Serbian Radical Party. He is perceived as a veteran politician who transitioned from an anti-Western nationalists to a pro-EU reformer. Forthermore, he positions himself as a “dominant player”, in Serbia and elsewhere in the postwar Balkans. He was Minister of Information from 1998 untill October 2000 in the Government of former Serbian Dictator Slobodan Milosevic. During this time he promoted penal laws against the liberal media, and personally signed the Law on Information, which led to the shutting down of many liberal newspapers. In 2008 he left the Radical Party to form a new one with former Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic. He became Prime Minister in 2014 and the Serbian Progressive Party has had the majority in the Serbian Parliament ever since. Opinions on him by the Western countries in general, and the EU in particular are mixed, on the one hand he is perceivedas an anchor of stability in Western Balkans,on the other he successfully won the elections with elaborate plan which included manipulation and monopoly through mainstream media that are under his control.

As former Ombudsman, Sasa Jankovic was one of the main opposition candidates. He won international praise for his work as ombudsman and was leading one of the few independent Government institutions, if not the only one. He was also the candidate who ran for presidency without being a member of any political party but actually had the support from the majority of the opposition parties such as Democratic Party, New Democratic Party, etc. A movement of 100 celebrities also supported Jankovic and led serious social media campaign. They portrayed themselves as ‘the decent Serbia’ and addressed the highly educated civil elites. In the manner of autocrats, Vucic and Progressive Party started a disinformation campaign through their media outlets that consisted of discrediting political opponents. Jankovic was flatly described by a Belgrade tabloid newspaper as the “killer” of a friend who committed suicide in 1993. An investigation had shown that Jankovic had nothing to do with the death, but the damage was already done.

Vuk Jeremic had a similar experience in this presidential race. A member of the Serbian Progressive Party gave a statement in which he accused the wife of Jeremic of being the biggest drug lord in the Balkans, and that he is surrounded by the biggest criminals, without any material evidence. Mainstream daily tabloid, close to Serbian Prime Minister, wrote series of negative news articles about Jeremic and Jankovic, calling Jeremic “the NATO candidate”. He also ran as an independent candidate.

The candidate, Ljubisa Preletacevic (or Beli, which is Serbian for white), is the alter-ego of 25-year old Luka Maksimovic. Sporting a white suit and a samurai-style ponytail, he has proved popular with voters and his promotional videos are a big hit on social media. Luka Maksimovic, together with a group of young friends from a small municipality near the capital of Serbia, Belgrade, created a civic movement and ran for local elections in 2016. The persona started out as a joke with his friends to mock what they say is the state of corruption in the country. He was the most active of Serbia’s 11 presidential candidates on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. He succeeded in collecting more than 20.000 signatures in few days (threshold in Serbia for candidacy is 10.000 signatures) and mostly the young and disappointed abstinent voters voted for him.

Vojislav Seselj announced his candidacy as soon as his plane from the Hague (He spent 11 years in the United Nations Detention Unit of Scheveningen during his trial) landed in Belgrade in 2014. Besides the fact that he is the leader of the Radical Party he is also the one with the closest ties to Russia and Kremlin politicians. He is openly advocating for Serbia’s alignment with Russia and relinquishment of Serbia’s EU integrations. He stands openly against the basic Human rights (LGBT rights, Freedom of expression, etc.) and is well known for numerous insults and threats addressed to his political opponents. He was one of the few candidates that was not demonized by Serbian pro-government mainstream media.

Sasa Jankovic and Vuk Jeremic are not on the same page on many things, but they agree on one – the campaign for Serbia’s presidential election is the dirtiest since the elections that kept strongman Slobodan Milosevic in power in the 1990s. Along with the media blackouts and public mudslinging opposition candidates had another aggravating circumstance during campaign.  The mainstream media under Vucic’s control has been demonizing most of the opposition candidates without giving them the opportunity to respond. Campaigning as the Prime Minister, Vucic had a head start considering that he had the opportunity to use state funds to boost his popularity.

Subsequently, the results of the elections were confirmed only after 15 days of waiting for the Republic election commission. Aleksandar Vucic won 55% of the votes, Jankovic won 16%, Ljubisa Preletacevic Beli won 9%, Jeremic won 5% and Seselj won 4% while all other candidates together won 7%. The main debate in the Republic election commission among opposition representatives was whether the Prime Minister stole the elections and in what way. They had no evidence of the election theft so now Serbia has Aleksandar Vucic as legally elected President. The voters’ turnout was 55% which is very indicative. Vucic might have won the elections but there is still question if the victory was indeed fair and square. According to critics Vucic stole the elections before the Election Day by having complete power in his hands and mechanisms to do so. Discrepancies as outdated and uncompleted Voters List, complete control of the media and change of the voting rules for Serbian votes from Kosovo in last minute are indeed ominous.

Another indication of dissatisfaction among people in Serbia are the Student protests that started one day after the election. Thousands of people gathered and organized through social media, walked the streets of Belgrade showing dissatisfaction with the newly elected President. MPs from the ruling coalition hurried to discredit the protesters, saying that they are bunch of drunken raging gangs, paid by Western “structures” to cause riots and destabilization in Serbia. They even showed pictures of protesters which featured children of some of the opposition politicians, sportsmen, journalists and people from Serbia’s public life. Vucic’s attitude  towards the protestors  is captured well  in this statement: “If you ask me they can walk for 10 years if they like…”

Authoritarian intentions of Serbia’s President Vucic are also manifested through his double reign as a Prime Minister and a President during the period by his official inauguration (The inauguration date is not yet known). What is certain is that he will appoint a Prime Minister at his own discretion and all the power will once again be in his hands. During the time of his reign he succeeded to completely degrade the meaning of state institutions, “partocracy” is still modus operandi with no rule of law in sight.

Andja Petkovic is an international politics researcher. She is a coordinator at Center of Euro-Atlantic Studies and member of Liberal Democratic Party of Serbia.

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