What does it say about a country, specifically its politicians, when one of the three leading election contenders is a satirical candidate?
Going into the final days of campaigning, Ljubisa Preletacevic is vying with well-established political players in the race to become Serbia’s next president.
They include a former president of the United Nations General Assembly, Vuk Jeremic; the ultranationalist leader of the Serbian Radical Party, Vojislav Seselj; and a former minister of the economy, Sasa Radulovic.
Preletacevic has been consistently out-polling all of them. Not bad for a man who does not actually exist.
For all the considerable publicity about his presidential bid, it would take an upset of unprecedented scale for him to prevent Aleksandar Vucic from becoming head of state.
The incumbent prime minister looks a reasonable bet to pass the 50% threshold and win in the first round. But the man on the white horse is an irresistible story.
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The creator of Ljubisa Preletacevic is a 25-year-old student, Luka Maksimovic. He came up with the character for last year’s local elections in Mladenovac, a suburb of Serbia’s capital, Belgrade.
The student and his friends were as stunned as everyone else when Preletacevic led a coalition (known as “Hit It Hard” or “Keep It Strong”, depending on the translator) to 20% of the vote.
The character was supposed to be a joke – a parody of an opportunist politician. The name Preletacevic is a pun: prelatac is a word used to describe a political figure who switches parties for political gain.
The ever-present white suit and his nickname, “Beli” (white), also cock a snook at politicians who promise probity on the campaign trail, but head straight for the trough once elected.
In contrast, Preletacevic and his cohorts brazenly commit to making false promises. One particularly eyebrow-raising proposal was a plan to open a euthanasia department for pensioners in a local hospital, to cut down on the cost of care for the elderly.
The parody struck such a chord that Preletacevic’s SPN party, which stands roughly for “Have You tasted the sauerkraut?” has become the biggest opposition grouping on Mladenovac council, with 12 seats.
His appeal appears to be spreading nationwide, to the considerable chagrin of economic reformers and ultranationalists alike.
His alter-ego, Luka Maksimovic, has responded with grim satisfaction to double-digit poll ratings, accusing Serbian politicians of being “dirty and corrupt” and declaring that it is time “at least to try to do something to change that”.
Whether a comedy candidate with little-to-nothing in the way of serious policies can promote a meaningful analysis of the shortcomings of Serbian politics is another question.
Veteran political analyst Bosko Jaksic has mixed feelings.
“He does have two effects. He can encourage young voters who don’t want to go to the polls. So he can, with his satire, mobilise them.
“But the second effect is that he is counting on those who are dissatisfied.”
It is not favourite Aleksandar Vucic who is losing votes, he believes, but his most serious challengers, ex-ombudsman Sasa Jankovic and former foreign minister Vuk Jeremic.
“This is a serious moment and it’s not time for games and humour,” he warns.
Aleksandar Vucic will, in all probability, complete a smooth transition from the prime minister’s office to the presidency. And the power base in Serbia will go with him.
But perhaps, as well as raising laughs, Ljubisa Preletacevic will raise awareness that Serbian politics has problems that need serious consideration.