Government alarmed by “poor striking back!”
Next Sunday, 2 April, presidential elections take place in Serbia. There are 11 candidates, including the current prime minister, who is increasingly hated by big parts of the population and seen as a dictator by many people. For many years, the political scene has been close to comical; corrupt political figures, the same faces that occupy the political scene, jump from one party to another, and often having like thugs. As such, they have lost every bit of respect amongst the population of Serbia, especially young people, who are looking at all politicians with disgust.
Now a satirical “joke” candidate is campaigning in a white suit and riding a white horse and is second in the opinion polls. The candidate, Ljubisa Preletacevic (or Beli, which is Serbian for white), is the alter-ego of 25-year old Luka Maksimovic, a Serbian university student.
To many workers it is obvious that the country is no more than a colony of the West, and that both government and “opposition” politicians only act as servants of foreign capital. Former publicly-owned companies, factories and agricultural lands were sold-off, one after another, together with workers who were, in effect, sold off to “foreign investors”, as little more than slaves.
Harsh working conditions, in some factories workers are forced to wear nappies because toilet breaks are not permitted, have been presented as progress by politicians. Recently a worker in a foreign-owned company committed suicide because his salary had not been paid for 15 months!
In this situation of widely perceived national degradation, on one hand, and the corruption of politicians, on the other hand, one young man and his group of friends, with a parody-like “performance” around a made-up character ‘Beli’ (meaning ‘White’), entered the election campaign scene. They are not completely new; last year, in local elections, they won around 20% and several seats in the Belgrade assembly. This time, only days before the presidential candidacy deadline, Beli announced he was going to stand. In only three days, the Beli campaign collected over the 10,000 signatures needed for the candidacy, despite all the obstructions put there by the ruling party.
The ruling party regard Bali as a threat; he ridicules the corrupt politicians by proclaiming he is “here only for the money and privilege”. His white suit and white horse – like a king, or even Cesar – are also mocking the Establishment. But Beli also says, although “jokingly”, that if elected he will kick out the IMF, give “all the money to the poor”, and give the people a referendum to decide about joining the EU. In contrast to Serbian nationalists, Beli says he wants “loving neighbourly relations” with the peoples of the other former Yugoslav republics and that if elected he will hand over the presidential residence to poor students to live in. Asked about Kosovo – which Serbian nationalists claim – he says he would make Serbia “so beautiful” that everyone would want to live there.
One of Beli’s slogans is, “the poor are striking back!” No wonder the government and “the opposition” see Beli as their biggest threat.
A Balkans sensation
During the presidential election campaign, Beli has become a sensation, not just in Serbia, but across the Balkans. Thousands of young people queued to sign for his candidature and gave small donations for his campaign. Many more young people are organising election-day monitoring, in expectation that the election will be rigged against Beli. His campaign has lifted many young people out of apathy and interested them in politics. This kind of excitement has not been seen in Serbian politics for more than a decade. Young people see this as a fight for themselves and for their future.
But not everybody gets the “joke”. Even some on the Left do not recognise the potential in this movement. They complain about “reducing politics to a parody” (as if politics in Serbia has not already been reduced to a parody a long time ago by “serious” politicians!). They are therefore willing to ignore this mass awakening of young people. Some others on the Left support Beli’s campaign, offering practical help, which is accepted by the young people in the Beli campaign (They do not accept aid from other forces; the Beli campaign reject suspect donations and cynically offered “support” from some Establishment politicians).
Premier Aleksandar Vucic is still the leading candidate for the presidency with more than 50 per cent in the latest opinion poll but many Beli supporters hope Beli will reach the second round, and then anything is possible, they believe. Many people conclude that were it not for the pressures from the ruling party and the disturbing tactics they use to try to make people vote for Vucic (threats of losing jobs and even physical threats), as well as rigging the vote, Beli would win by a landslide in the first round. This is very difficult to tell but one thing is certain, Beli’s popularity has grown massively in just the last few days. If the elections are openly rigged, big protests are also a possibility. Whatever happens on Sunday, everybody agrees that young people will not return to apathy.
Socialists in Serbia need to engage with the many genuine youth involved in or supporting the Beli campaign, and through discussion help them to understand that only by building an independent political force of the working class, youth and poor, and by carrying out a democratic socialist programme, can the most progressive of Beli’s ideas be put into practice. As an individual on the Serbian Left put it, drawing comparisons with the 1917 Russia Revolution, “Beli is the February; we will be the October.”