Serbian premier Vucic poised to tighten grip on power as president

Comedy candidate could come second in Sunday's election

Comedy candidate Luka Maksimovic, also known as “Beli”, during a campaign rally in Mladenovac earlier this week. Photograph: Antonio Bronic/Reuters

Comedy candidate Luka Maksimovic, also known as “Beli”, during a campaign rally in Mladenovac earlier this week. Photograph: Antonio Bronic/Reuters

 

Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic is poised for a landslide victory in Sunday’s presidential election, against rivals who include a civil rights defender, a former war crimes suspect and a comedy candidate who parodies the country’s populist politicians.

Surveys indicate that the conservative Mr Vucic will probably secure the 50 per cent of votes he needs to avoid a run-off, further enhancing the dominance he and his allies exert over Serbian politics, business, media and security structures.

Supporters say Serbia needs a strong leader like Mr Vucic – who wants the country to join the EU while strengthening military and economic ties with Russia – but critics fear he is building an autocracy.

Polls suggest several candidates will take just under 10 per cent each: former ombudsman Sasa Jankovic; ex-foreign minister Vuk Jeremic; Voljislav Seselj, who was cleared last year of committing war crimes in the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s; and Luka Maksimovic, in his guise as sleazy “man of the people” Ljubisa Preletacevic “Beli”.

Disillusionment

As Preletacevic, he usually sports a white suit and shoes, a man bun and gaudy jewellery, and arrives for rallies and interviews in a white limousine, or even on a white horse; his nickname “Beli” means white in Serbian, while his surname resembles the local word for a politician who swaps parties for personal gain.

Campaigning under the slogan “Go hard!”, Beli unashamedly promises voters the world, while making clear that his main motivation is profit. His act has struck a chord in a country weary of politicians’ corruption and cynicism.

Last year, the party that Maksimovic founded with friends as a joke came second to Mr Vucic’s Progressives in elections in their hometown of Mladenovac.

Mr Vucic’s opponents and many political analysts say Serbian democracy is being reduced to a mere show by his control over all branches of power and the fawning coverage he is given by major media outlets.

Scenario

Boris Tadic

Serbia’s Bureau for Social Research found Mr Vucic received 120 times more media coverage during the campaign than Mr Jankovic and Mr Jeremic combined – and much of the press given to opposition figures was deeply negative.

Mr Vucic (47) has also used his role as premier to project a “presidential” image, by holding high-profile talks with the German and Russian leaders this month.

“He is so powerful because he knows how to play the game, and we need someone like that,” said retired Belgrade engineer Radomir Jokic.

“He knows how to handle Russia and the Europeans, and how to run politics in Serbia. He’s like the president already. He’s the best man for the job.”