Niš, photo: Dragan Nikolić
Niš, photo: Dragan Nikolić

If you are my age, you probably remember Niš from 1996/97 fondly. You probably remember Zoran Živković from that time period most fondly of all. (Živković from the past ten years is something else.) At that time, private, independent (opposition-minded) local TV stations were booming in Niš. It was a place where (oppositional) political life seemed to be thriving. This recollection almost seems like nostalgia. The past three decades, with all the failed expectations and the disaster after 2012, make Niš from the second half of the nineties seem like a politically lost (oppositional) paradise.

Hence the strong emotions towards yesterday’s results of the opposition in Niš. Those results give hope that, maybe, something has started again in Niš. Except it hasn’t. There is no reason to interpret the success of the opposition in Niš as a hint of future general changes for the better. These are different times. Although the regime from the nineties is still the same today.

Democracy stands on several foundations. One of them is education. Among other things, democratic political life should be understood as a school where everyone is a student. In this regard, what we learned in the 1990s is important, but only partially applicable to the situation today. Yes, the media is important. Yes, it is important for the opposition to be united. Yes, it is important that we have parties as guarantors and resources for organized political work, without which it is not possible to participate in elections, win, and competently take over power.

But, back then, we didn’t know that when voters give their trust, they expect, in return, not to be let down. Quite simply, until 1996/97 we did not have the opportunity to test the capacity of the opposition parties to govern. We were lucky then, in various ways and with various types of help, the parties that took over local governments turned out to be good. Today we have a rich, albeit short, (more bad than good) experience with those parties in power. That is the first difference.

In the 1990s, citizens’ movements could not compete with political parties. It’s not just that they didn’t have enough resources, nor enough political/electoral experience (neither did the parties) – simply, people trusted established parties more. In that sense, the SPS was so dominant that (unfortunately) it became a model for all other parties, but also for the attitude of the people of Serbia towards political parties. We paid dearly for that after 2000.

Today, the opposite is happening – people are ready to trust non-party actors (individual or collective, doesn’t matter) more than parties. And those non-party actors themselves are no longer completely without resources, as they obviously have enough knowledge to successfully move through the political field (it’s not just a matter of good communication, they are also very well organized). It remains to be seen how these actors will behave once they take power (in the elections). (Which obviously won’t happen now.) That’s another difference.

The third difference is in the political opponent faced by the opposition. Although they are literally the same regimes – today’s regime is just the one from the nineties, renewed – there are still important differences between their positions. Today’s regime is both weaker and stronger than its criminal political twin from the 1990s. Milošević ruled by force and through war (at first in neighboring countries, with the war eventually coming to Kosovo, which was Serbia at the time). Today we do not (yet) have a war.

Milošević’s nationalism was completely obvious and undisputed, and the opposition parties generally followed him in this regard, rarely challenging it, with the exception of the anti-nationalist GSS. But anti-nationalism was far from being an interesting, or even acceptable, option for the majority of Serbian residents back then, which remains the case today. Finally, the “western world” was (eventually) against Milošević, and the wars in Yugoslavia were the centre of international attention. Vučić, of course, also rules by sheer force, but the power of the media he relies on is stronger than Milošević’s. Vučić’s nationalism is easily challenged by bigger nationalists than him. The “Western world” is on the side of Vučić, simply because they don’t care about us anymore. There are many spots “hotter” than ours. At least until we go to war again.

Because of all this, Vučić fares better than Milošević even when he is weaker than him at the polls. Vučić’s results at the polls have been declining steadily for a while. His support is sinking. In these elections, Vučić had the broadest coalition possible, effectively killing (i.e. sacrificing) the SPS in the process, and he still got fewer votes than in December.

However, again with good reasons, he can be declared the winner, because the winner is the one who rules after the election. We can now say that he achieved a poor result considering the resources spent and sacrificed, but he will rule after these elections, and that makes him the winner. But we shouldn’t give him more than he earned. He remains in power – when I say he, I include his entourage, because they are one and the same – not because he made good moves, but because the opposition played frivolously and irresponsibly.

The first comments after the election emphasized that the opposition created confusion in the minds of the voters. And that this is the reason for both the low turnout and the generally poor election result of the opposition. This is not true. The minds of the voters were quite clear. The only confusion was in the minds of opposition party actors. And they were punished for that. Not only did a good number of voters abstain from voting, but the majority of those who did vote (for the opposition, that is) chose non-party actors. I can’t imagine a clearer message for the parties. There are at least two messages, and both inspire hope.

The first is that Serbian politics is finally getting so-called spontaneous actors. We remember the nineties – parties were formed almost exclusively in Belgrade (with the exception of Vojvodina, to some extent), and it was always done by a small group of people who later invited others to join them. In the past few years, we have seen movements and groups which are formed and spread their influence locally. This kind of political decentralization is good news, and this election showed us how good it can be.

The second message is addressed to the parties. It is twofold. Parties are no longer the only political actors that people are ready to vote for and trust. Parties can no longer count on voter support just because they are in the opposition. If we go back to the statement from the beginning – that democracy is a universal educational process – then, this time, the students were the confused parties, and the lesson was taught by the bright citizens of Serbia. The lesson is: we trusted you in December because, and only because, you were together. In April, you destroyed that unity, so we are denying our trust.

A new political process begins today. Having received the lesson, it is time for the students to show what they have learned.

Translated by Marijana Simić

Pešč, 06.06.2024.

The following two tabs change content below.
Dejan Ilić (1965, Zemun), urednik izdavačke kuće FABRIKA KNJIGA i časopisa REČ. Diplomirao je na Filološkom fakultetu u Beogradu, magistrirao na Programu za studije roda i kulture na Centralnoevropskom univerzitetu u Budimpešti i doktorirao na istom univerzitetu na Odseku za rodne studije. Objavio je zbirke eseja „Osam i po ogleda iz razumevanja“ (2008), „Tranziciona pravda i tumačenje književnosti: srpski primer“ (2011), „Škola za 'petparačke' priče: predlozi za drugačiji kurikulum“ (2016), „Dva lica patriotizma“ (2016), „Fantastična škola. Novi prilozi za drugačiji kurikulum: SF, horror, fantastika“ (2020) i „Srbija u kontinuitetu“ (2020).

Latest posts by Dejan Ilić (see all)