Like most recent elections, this spring’s presidential campaign in Serbia has been anything but boring. Acting Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić’s overwhelming first-round victory — with 55.07 percent of the vote based on 99 percent counted — seemed to prove that the election had been rigged.
Serbians immediately took to the streets, expressing their dissatisfaction with the nation’s undemocratic turn and their rage at living conditions that have been falling since the global economic crisis.
The crash reached Serbia in 2010, and contributed to the defeat of the Democratic Party (DS) at the hands of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) two years later. Since then, the ruling party has been playing a carefully calculated game to consolidate power in a tumultuous period.
When they entered government, SNS leaders Tomislav Nikolić (the outgoing president) and Vučić couldn’t have hoped that the country’s economic situation would improve. A peripheral European country already waist-deep in debt, Serbia would struggle to pull itself out the continent-wide recession and shift to austerity. Thus Nikolić and Vučić deployed a series of gimmicks to keep themselves in power.
The SNS built a complex and corrupt system to ensure a stable voter “base,” which included an alleged eight hundred thousand or more imaginary voters, a widespread network for buying support, and a blackmail scheme that kept both private and public sector workers and their families loyal. These strategies kept the SNS in power at inflated approval rates, likely imperceptible to foreign observers.
Meanwhile, the DS suffered utter ideological and political destruction. The absence of any real opposition helped prop up the SNS government, which presented itself as the answer to the nation’s polarized political landscape.
The main ideological conflict in post-Milošević Serbia was between the so-called first Serbia and second Serbia. The former consisted of traditionalist, pro-Russian nationalists; the latter of liberal, pro-European elitists. The SNS started as a pro-European Union faction within one of the bastions of nationalism, Vojislav Šešelj’s Serbian Radical Party.
This unique position allowed it to adopt the DS’s economic platform in the 2012 presidential and parliamentary campaigns, effectively fusing the nationalist, pro-Russian wing with the “modernizing,” pro-European wing. Nikolić represented the traditionalist arm, while Vučić represented the seemingly more progressive side, but both agreed on enacting neoliberal austerity.
SNS — and Vučić’s tenure as prime minister — seemed to resolve this central ideological conflict, which plunged the other political parties into a deep crisis. On the liberal, pro-EU side, the once-powerful DS splintered into as many as four different and irrelevant political groups.
None have since won any noteworthy victories, electoral or otherwise. Indeed, Vuk Jeremić, former president of the United Nations General Assembly, ran on a center-right ticket of global realpolitik and secured only 5.66 percent of the vote.
The nationalist right didn’t fare much better. Its spiritual leader, Vojislav Šešelj, a notorious war criminal from the nineties, returned to Serbia in 2014 after being acquitted by the Hague International Criminal Tribunal.
Furious at being “betrayed” by his old pals Vučić and Nikolić, Šešelj has since settled for the role of parliamentary comic relief. He cannot maintain even the slightest of facade of challenging Vučić’s politics, and received only 4.49 percent of the vote on April 2.
The campaign’s excitement came not from these establishment players, but from two non-party candidates: Saša Janković, former national ombudsman of the Republic of Serbia, and Ljubiša Preletačević Beli, the stage name of Luka Maksimović, a Mladenovac Youtuber and comedian who ran a grassroots campaign aimed at mobilizing Serbia’s traditionally apathetic youth.
He seems to have failed to do so — voter turnout was significantly lower than expected — but he did manage to sway a large percentage of the disillusioned left-liberal electorate and the urban youth. Beli scored a surprising 9.42 percent on the basis of an extremely lo-fi, guerrilla campaign.
Janković came in a distant second to Aleksandar Vučić, earning just 16.36 percent of the vote. His campaign called for the accountability of institutions — a demand that, understandably, did not move voters, who endure abysmal living conditions created by the government’s austerity policy and its fanatical devotion to International Monetary Fund diktat.
They would rather have higher wages, better jobs, and a stronger welfare state than prosecute the government’s cronies and corrupt functionaries.
While Vučić’s victory came as little surprise, the public reaction to it did not. A Facebook event created on election day by a politically unaffiliated and relatively unknown ex-rapper brought thousands of people onto Belgrade’s streets. The demonstration, to some extent, reproduced last year’s Ne da(vi)mo Beograd protests, which marked the return of mass movements to Serbia.
Daily actions ensued, and on April 8, eighty thousand people gathered when youth protests merged with the joint police and army trade union protest. Prior to that, an aggressive group of far-right thugs had tried to hijack the movement. For three days, they had free rein to physically dictate who could stand at the front of the march. Furthermore, their leaders falsely presented themselves as organizers of the protest.
They were prevented from establishing themselves as the leading force of the protest by unaffiliated protesters who joined progressive and left-wing activists to beat the reactionaries back, and who went on to chase the right wing away with chants of “we don’t want no leaders.”
The emboldened left now represents the movement’s most coherent political group. This is an important lesson both for the Left and for those skeptical towards its capability to lead struggles for political change. For the first time, the young radical left in Serbia is demonstrating an ability to influence mass movements, instead of tailing behind them.
Vučić even acknowledged the protesters’ growing political power, accusing marginal left-wing groups (including Marks21) of leading the demonstrations, echoing the far right’s slander campaign.
Activists are making progressive social demands, which many protesters have widely accepted. Now, they’re trying to coordinate actions and demands across several cities in Serbia. A number of independent initiatives and groups are working together in order to strengthen the movement and form its organizational backbone. The most obvious result of this cooperation so far has been a list of coordinated demands put forward by the movement in the largest cities.
The list includes eight demands, which could be considered abstract and “indirect”: decentralization of the state, free education, healthcare for all, and so on. The varied content of the demands is relevant in the context of years of atomized struggle, during which the Left usually intervened with a call for unification and solidarity.
Thus, it is clear that the movement is more focused on finding its identity and mobilizing large numbers of ordinary people around the issues that they find important than on possible negotiations with the government or other institutions. A trend of calling for a common front of the working class and student youth is starting to emerge, and some trade unions have begun to voice their support for the movement and to contemplate engaging with it.
The road for this shift, to an extent, was paved by a joint demonstration between a left-wing student organization, a minor left-wing trade union, and self-organized workers of IMT — a former industrial giant now facing probable privatization.
This demonstration merged with the semi-established youth movement on Tuesday, April 11. Though mutual trust among the various extra-parliamentary forces is yet to be fully established, the sectarian impulse appears to have been overcome.
Even though the authorities have chosen to ignore the protests, and police presence on the streets of Belgrade (and other large cities) has been surprisingly small, the movement is already facing significant challenges.
The main one comes from the mainstream media, which is under significant influence from the state apparatus: reports on the protests routinely underestimate the numbers of demonstrators, sometimes claiming that the protests were ten times smaller than they actually were; the protesters are described as being drunk and/or drugged, or belonging to a “well dressed bourgeois (!) elite”; and slander and misinformation has become an everyday occurrence.
In smaller towns, the vengeance of the ruling party has been much more violent. Pančevo protests were disbanded after the police implied (via text messages sent by an inspector) that their organizers could be falsely charged with possession of cocaine, and in Leskovac two workers at a private firm were fired after their children were spotted at the demonstration.
The extra-parliamentary radical left has played a significant role in shaping the appearance and atmosphere of the protests, notably in Belgrade, Novi Sad, and Zrenjanin. However, the movement is far from being controlled or directed by it.
For one thing, the Left lacks the sheer manpower that would be necessary for such a feat. It must now provide smart political leadership to the movement, and urge it towards overcoming the liberal presumptions under which it still operates.
In such a scenario, the Left would be provided with a practical victory that would allow it to wrest the title of the main fighter against neoliberalism from the nationalist, anti-globalist right.
Such a development would, for the first time in many years, open the doors to international cooperation in the Balkans — historically, the only thing that has been a guarantee of radical and revolutionary politics in a region constantly ravaged by the imperialisms of both great power, and their own local satellites.
Doubtless, the Left is the most active conscious political force in the protests, though it still remains to an extent unaware of its potential and its responsibility. As these events represent the largest social movement, in both participation and geographic spread, since Milošević’s toppling in 2000, this potential could be turned into an opportunity to punch above its weight.
Still, a strategic choice looms for the Left of either creating a new and truly popular political alternative, or sentencing itself to yet more political irrelevance.