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08 Mar 17

How Trump and Vucic Became Politically Indestructible

In the US and Serbia, the opposition expends a lot of time and creative energy exposing the flaws of despised leaders - so why aren’t all the critical articles and satirical memes working?

The opposition in both countries pretend that problems of Trump's US and Vucic's Serbia began with their current leaders. Photo: Flickr/Gage Skidmore.

One interesting element of the current crisis in the liberal democratic systems in the US and Europe which escalated after the election of Donald Trump is that it is relatively similar to the political upheavals in Serbia and the Western Balkans over the past three decades.

The rise of Trump has dispelled our deep-seated fear that ex-Yugoslavs are somehow exceptionally susceptible to vapid and potentially dangerous demagogues, but it also allows us to see common factors in our problems and, hopefully, to share solutions.

One such factor is the outcry from the established US and European cultural and political elites over Trump’s views, behaviour and ruling style. It cannot but remind me of the ways in which Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has been criticised by Serbia’s educated, pro-Western, socially liberal(ish) elite over the past five years.

In both cases, the opposition expends enormous energy and time in laying bare the flaws of their despised leaders in the most creative ways. There are frequent mental health assessments of the ‘villains-in-chief’, daily shocking anecdotes from their lives, constant impassioned analyses of their statements, not to mention thousands of (occasionally hilarious) memes, jokes, cartoons and videos circulated daily on social network.

In all of these, Vucic and Trump are portrayed as uniquely flawed, dangerous and/or ridiculous, and often, as solely responsible for the problems in their respective countries.

Of course, it is always entertaining to see a powerful politician you disagree with skewered by good satire. It is also strangely comforting to think that problems of your country can be reduced to one person (even if that person is uniquely nefarious). Still, one cannot but wonder if this approach helps the cause of opposing their policies and worldviews.

A good indication of the answer to that question is Trump’s continued success. He has more or less endured this type of attack from the launch of his presidential bid in June 2015, but still he won the election.

More worryingly, even if the recent attacks on Trump and the chaos enveloping his cabinet have dented his approval rating (one poll puts it at only 47 per cent on February 8), his controversial policies remain popular: despite its illegality, his infamous travel ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries is supported by the majority of Americans (55 per cent, according to a Politico-Morning Consult poll).

The issue is that the opposition in both countries likes to pretend that problems of Trump’s US and Vucic’s Serbia began with their current leaders. However, many of them were the product of their predecessors, who laid the groundwork, often willingly, by weakening checks on own power, or unwittingly, by refusing to address head-on valid problems raised by large parts of the electorate (for example, in both cases, declining or stagnant standards of living).

Indeed, both of them are just unpolished, raw personifications of their systems: Trump, the vastly entitled millionaire-heir-turned-reality-star; Vucic, a lifelong party apparatchik who rose to prominence in the dark times of the 1990s.

Unlike Trump, who cast himself as a radical departure from Obama, when Vucic was coming to power, he did not even promise anything substantially different from the programme of his predecessors, but just fed on public disappointment with the former Serbian President Boris Tadic.

The greatest problem with Vucic’s Serbia is definitely not Vucic, flawed and self-aggrandising leader as he undoubtedly is. The greatest problem is that there are not many credible alternatives on offer, both in terms of ideas and people.

Few offer solutions to the current system in which political parties are organised like a cross between the mafia and an employment bureau, where accountability on the highest level is a myth, and where even the little economic growth there is overwhelmingly benefits the relatively well-to-do.

Of course, this is not to say that the current style of government personified by Vucic, with countless scandals swept under the rug (from alleged electoral fraud in 2012 to last April’s nocturnal Savamala demolitions) and the permanent creation of crises, is not problematic because of its disastrous effects on democratic institutions, press freedom and judiciary.

Yet despite the plethora of scandals that have hit his government, the opposition still focuses too much on Vucic personally: his abilities, his obsessively-maintained media image and, less tastefully, his mental state and personal life. Almost absent is a reasoned explanation to the electorate about how it is being badly affected by all this, and how things could be done differently.

The effect of the current approach is very limited in terms of its potential to convince almost half of Serbia’s electorate who do not vote, let alone Vucic’s supporters.

Unsurprisingly, the focus on Vucic’s personal flaws has not achieved all that much, as you can see from his persistent high personal approval ratings. A recent poll suggested that 31 per cent of Serbs think he is the best leader that the country has ever had. No matter how many memes were shared over the past five years, or however many pointed articles have been written, there has been hardly a dent in his popularity.

By focusing their criticism on Vucic-the-person, they are inadvertently helping him maintain his martyr-like image. Even in power and with overwhelming support, Vucic, much like Trump, casts himself as an underdog who is constantly being attacked by shady forces. Being pilloried by his political opponents, who are popularly perceived as corrupt themselves, just plays into this narrative.

Some opposition commentators explain Vucic’s popularity by appealing to arcane (and condescending) theories, most notably Serbia’s alleged love of strong leaders and “feudal” mentality which allows corruption and clientelism to flourish.

The answer, I believe, is much simpler, if more depressing. There is simply little that the opposition can offer that is substantially different. Apart from the far -right (the Radicals, DSS and Dveri), the opposition cannot articulate how precisely it would deviate from Vucic’s economic policy which is driven by foreign direct investment and privatisation, or his EU-first-then-Russia-and-China-second foreign policy.

Furthermore, all the valid calls by the opposition for the strengthening of the rule of law and press freedom ring hollow to the electorate because of one crucial problem. All the leaders of major political parties in Serbia (apart from Dveri) have been in positions of power in the past two decades, and all have failed to avoid behaving similarly to Vucic by using political power for personal or party gain (albeit to different extents).

Still, this is not to say that there are no effective challenges to the status quo. It is just that they do not come from traditional parties or from the vilification of Vucic and his government.

They come from single issue-driven grassroots movements made up of new faces. The most famous is ‘Ne Davimo Beograd’ (Let’s not Drown Belgrade), which protests against Belgrade Waterfront development and seeks an investigation into the illegal Savamala demolitions which happened last April. It manages to draw people out of their apathy and onto the streets because of its focus on real, tangible issues and its unwillingness to ally itself with any political party. It offers the hope of something else rather than business as usual.

Trump and Vucic’s opponents could learn valuable if depressing lessons from the downfall of Serbia’s original ‘villain-in-chief’ - Slobodan Milosevic.

Despite almost a decade of opposition built on good jokes and various other attempts to show how morally bankrupt he was personally, including mass protests, Milosevic only lost power after the NATO bombing, when it became obvious to everybody that the future of isolation and instability he offered was much worse than whatever even the largely chaotic opposition could provide.

The second lesson is even more depressing. Even after Milosevic was toppled, clientelism and disregard for the institutions of the state outlived him, and now seem to have been reincarnated in our current ‘villain-in-chief’.

Srđan Garčević is a writer and a founder of The Nutshell Times blog.

This article was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.

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