Serbian Personal Party seeking yet another plebiscite

By Biagio Carrano

Even if accustomed as they are to audits of budget results each year and even to the syncopated rhythm of quarterly reports, foreign investors, managers, entrepreneurs and professionals often express their bewilderment at the repeated recourse to the ballot box that characterizes Serbian politics.

Paradoxical question, after all: the very accelerated world of business and entrepreneurship, whose creative destruction Schumpeter extolled, demands stability from politics, which in much of the world no longer knows how to guarantee it. Here, then, is the President of Serbia presenting himself in election commercials for the Parliament convocation (to which, of course, he is not a candidate) as a good driver of a car capable of dodging the dangers that appear on the road. Obvious metaphor, even a trivial promise: security inside, stability outside.

United States Ambassador Christopher Hill with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic

Many Western countries turn up their noses, demand free media, independent judges, and an autonomous Parliament, and remember Montesquieu’s separation of powers: “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely“. What does this stability, that those same countries (and their businesses) demand at any cost from Serbia, entail? It requires, precisely, power to be stably in the hands of the same, unchanged interlocutor. So no replacement: “absolute stability corrupts absolutely,” we might quip.

So, to cope with these contradictory demands of Western countries (in short: democratic principles yes, but without alternation in power) Serbian democracy “à la Vučić” has developed a precipitous model of democracy, which we could call plebiscitary – a unique case in Europe and perhaps in the world. Starting in 2014, between parliamentary and presidential elections Serbs have been called on average once every sixteen months to reaffirm their support for the current President of the Republic and his SNS, the Serbian Progressive Party, transformed into the Serbian Personal Party. And each time, thanks to media and state control as evident as the macroeconomic results of the past decade, the current power structure is reaffirmed, with over 40 percent of support for the party and over 60 percent for the person because, in a country with fragile and porous institutions like Serbia, a ruling party inevitably tends to make itself the State.

Of course, when it was planned, in the hopes of its German promoters, the Serbian Progressive Party was supposed to be a kind of Serbian CDU-CSU, i.e., a conservative party, based on national and religious identity, moderately patriotic, open to the free market and European integration to the extent that it should succeed in resolving the Kosovo issue. In fact, the SNS has transformed itself over the years into a personal party, not only quickly freeing itself from the German protectorate, but looking with increasing sympathy and affinity to other “personal-sovereignist” (if one wants to use this word in vogue) models such as Erdogan’s Turkish AKP and Orban’s Hungarian Fidesz (Oh, Frau Merkel, how many misjudgments you had!).

Ezio Cartotto, the Italian politologist who elaborated the political party “Forza Italia for Silvio Berlusconi. (Source: Youtube)

The concept of the personal party is now widely studied and disseminated, elaborated in Italy and represented in its prototypical form by Forza Italia in a context in the 1990s, where the historical Italian parties were dissolving, but other state powers remained firmly in place, beginning with the judiciary and acting as a counterbalance to the prime minister. In contrast, Serbia, in the decade since Milosevic’s fall, experienced a weakening of the state and the dominance of tycoons, enriched by illicit deals and predatory privatization, over politics. It is no coincidence that, at first, the SNS presented itself as a moralizing party, capable at least of punishing those who got massively wealthy by buying off for nothing state industrial assets, with the apotheosis of consensus when the hitherto untouchable Miroslav Miskovic, the quintessential Serbian tycoon, was put in jail.

Picking up on Leibholtz’s lesson, in so many ways the SNS used this State weakness, to build a party financially and politically capable of being hegemonic over other socio-economic actors, who in the end, had no choice but to comply or oppose, suffering discrimination and boycotts.

The personal party should not be seen as opposed to the party organisation: on the contrary, it has a well-established organization, it is the current version of the mass party, but founded not on an ideology and first and foremost on loyalty to the leader. Thus a dual loyalty has been created in the country: a weak one, to the State, which no longer can provide quality education, acceptable health services, legal certainty, and widespread and equitable security; and a strong one, to the ruling party and its leader. However, those who think of a juxtaposition are wrong: the ruling party and the Serbian state are coessential and paradoxically, the personal party intends to present itself as the structure capable of making the state work, while bending it to its power objectives.

The personal party by its nature cannot have its own collegiality: officially the president of the Serbian Progressive Party is Milos Vucicevic: a fact known to a minority of Serbs because it is the President of the Republic who appears on billboards and in commercials campaigning for his party. Clearly, at the institutional level, the typical third-party nature of the function of the President of the Republic is skipped – whoever wins that role ends up being an elective ruler, without too many constitutional constraints and the one who appoints and removes a prime minister in his employ. Personal parties inevitably push to transform the constitutional arrangements of the countries where they are present from parliamentary to presidential republics. Although Serbia is still nominally a parliamentary republic, de facto it has become a presidential republic, not because of constitutional reform, but because the head of the strongest personal party is also president of the republic.

The personal party must have its autonomous financial strength: if the Italian prototype of Forza Italia was based on Silvio Berlusconi’s resources after Fininvest (later Mediaset) went listed, today’s personal parties are based on a network of financiers and businesses, often directly controlled, capable of providing the resources to meet the costs of the organizational structure, the costs of propaganda, and extemporaneous needs. In this, they are not far removed from the economic structures that gravitated around the mass parties of the second half of the twentieth century. The difference lies in the use of the levers of state power to favour certain enterprises or enterprises related to the personal party.

The Serbian personal party is also a mass party: the latest figures note that the SNS officially claims 800,000 members, so nearly one in six adult Serbs would adhere to the dominant party in the country. These numbers indicate a radically real desire, not only for the mobilization of voters.

DIAGRAM – The personal party on the Serbian political scene

The quadrant below helps us to better understand what it means for a country to have a personal party in power.

Diagram by Luigi Di Gregorio, taken from the book “The personal party” by Mauro Calise, Laterza, 2010, page. 141.

The horizontal axis identifies the voting choices ranging from the vote of membership to the vote of a leadership. The vertical axis defines voting choices driven by individual considerations, by informed citizens, or by group choices, by supporters who mutually confirm themselves in their choices for some common belonging. The four fields of attributes that are constructed identify four types of vote: the vote of ideological affiliation, where groups recognize themselves in a party (think of an area Union); opinion voting, where informed citizens choose certain policies, government options on certain issues; the exchange vote, the patronage, where the leader and the individual citizen agree to favour a citizen’s interest (job, commercial or building license, etc.) and the charismatic vote, where the leader is chosen and supported for his figure, thanks to an almost prelogical relationship with the electorate based on ancestral needs, such as security, sense of belonging, transfer of positive feelings of affection or idolatry of the leader.

If we were to position the Serbian parties on these quadrants, we would see how the SNS would win hands down not only the quadrant of the charismatic vote, but also that of “patronage”. It would also position itself very well in the ideological competition, while in recent days, while in recent days. it has fielded many faces from so-called “civil society” to be a viable option in the opinion vote as well.

Conversely, the right-wing oppositions appear to be strong in the ideological quadrant, but weak in the opinion vote, succumbing in leadership and clearly lacking in the patronage vote. The Serbia Against Violence coalition (“vast programme”, De Gaulle would have commented) is banking everything on the opinion vote with a moralistic approach that excludes the patronage vote, but while Marinika Tepic’s leadership has gained reputation in recent years, the ideological orientation of the coalition is somewhat generic and indistinct, with various members sometimes expressing diametrically opposed views.

If we superimpose on this quadrant the socio-economic-cultural structure of the country, we will see that the most educated and affluent people, who therefore have a rational approach toward voting that is not conditioned by material factors, are concentrated in the capital, while the populist messages, with the giveaways from the state budget to the young and retired, will have their greatest effect in the less affluent areas and among the less affluent sections of the country, who will vote en masse for the party in power.

With a ruling party that is competitive in three out of four quadrants, the outcome of the elections appears quite predictable. With the opinion vote concentrated in the capital, a portion of the opposition will probably be able to claim a gratifying result, but not enough to trigger a shift in power in the country.

Personal party consensus is cultivated on a double track: a popular consensus on TV stations and tabloids that modulate the agenda of offsetting the emotional reactions of the less conscious population, stirring fear, indignation and national pride from time to time to strengthen the emotional bond with the leader. At the top, refined intellectual circles define the national interest and geopolitical strategies while being mindful that, historically, the country can only be strengthened with strong leadership.

I do not believe that there is a single personal party that cannot be called “sovereignist” or “patriotic” – personal parties are an elaboration of contemporary right-wing culture, of the desire to disintermediate state processes to appeal directly to the people, that is, to what are deemed (or induced) their deepest needs and aspirations. In this sense, the leader is an expression of the national community, understood as Gemeinschaft as opposed to Gesellschaft, or civil society. In his classic text, Ferdinand Tönnies proposes this distinction from which two quite different types of leaders arise: from the ties in community or homeland emerges the charismatic leader, while from rational intersubjective ties, emerges the logical-rational leader, in essence, the technician of the eponymous governments.

Aleksandar Vucic and the Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch Porfirije

In Orthodox countries, the conservative personal party congregates well with the local Patriarchate – the Byzantine symphonia, or full concordance between religion and state, is reaffirmed by this configuration of power in which the head of state is the head of the party with the greatest popular consensus, thus the representative and demiurge of the nation’s destinies, in a hysteroscopic version of which Berdjaev gave the most effective elaboration.

The slogan says “Surrender is not on the table,” implicitly referring to Kosovo’s independence

Today’s sovereignist leaders do not spread warlike messages, or rather, in an era of uncertainty, anxieties and new real armed conflicts, they put themselves forward as the first and only viable defenders of their people from aggression or claims, real or presumed of other peoples or international institutions, to a population frightened by global changes, they put themselves forward as their shield, not their sword. It is no coincidence that the animal totem appearing in some SNS election spaces is the wolf, par excellence an animal with a pack leader who protects others.

So we come to the question of Kosovo, the real identity issue of present-day Serbia. After decades of revanchist propaganda, no Serbian government would withstand popular dissent in the case of recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Thus we return to the original question: do the European partners really want the destabilization of Serbia and the area? Of the 18 parties vying for the elections on Sunday, December 17, only the marginal party of former President of the Republic, Boris Tadic and the pro-European platform “Serbia against Violence” stand in the majority of their components for the recognition of Kosovo and in an implicit form anyway. All other parties that do not represent ethnic minorities, if anything, accuse Vucic of being too soft on the Kosovo issue. But in reality, all Serbs know that Sunday will not be a vote either to decide on Kosovo, or on a future membership in the European Union, or on relations with Russia, or on social policies or the model of development that the country should follow. It will be another plebiscite for or against Vucic and his Personal Party.

This post is also available in: Italiano

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