Parade of Eccentrics Raises Smiles in Serbian Poll

No-hopers are flocking once again to take part in a presidential race that they cannot win.

Parade of Eccentrics Raises Smiles in Serbian Poll

No-hopers are flocking once again to take part in a presidential race that they cannot win.

When Serbian tycoon Bogoljub Karic announced his candidacy in Serbia's forthcoming presidential election, he said his first move as head of state would be to ban foreign lettuce.

"The first step will be to stop importing 20 million euros worth of lettuce into Serbia, to have Serbs plant it as they always have, and then export it,” he announced, proudly.

Karic, one of Serbia's richest businessmen, heads the family-run BK Group, which includes an influential TV station in its portfolio as well as a private university.

He is one of more than a dozen candidates with few chances of winning the June 13 poll. At least 17 of the 20 presidential hopefuls fall into the same bracket and some are less serious than Karic.

One would-be president is a princess, Jelisaveta Karadjordjevic, mother of Hollywood actress Catherine Oxenberg, who has spent most of her life abroad. Her campaign promise is to "make Serbia more beautiful".

Another hopeful, Belgrade waiter Radivoje Milutinovic, goes by the nickname "Mujo the Thief", which he says is what the communists called him under the previous regime.

Mujo, campaigning for president for the second time, pledges to replace the dinar with the euro and to legalise prostitution "in order to carry out a sexual revolution”.

He gained fame last year when - via the tabloids - he offered marriage to Hague tribunal chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, and not long after, to US national security advisor Condoleezza Rice.

Though Milutinovic said he hoped “people will realise” he will win in the first round of the vote, few pundits consider this likely.

In fact, the media recently reported he had gone on “a hunger strike until death” after complaining he lacked funds to collect the 10,000 signatures each hopeful needs to validate his candidacy.

The phenomenon of a flock of presidential candidates - most of whom are no-hopers - is not that recent. The tradition dates to Serbia's first multi-party presidential elections in 1990, when former communist leader Slobodan Milosevic won in the first round.

Srboljub Bogdanovic, an editor at the weekly magazine NIN, says Milosevic’s media experts deliberately promoted “an ultra-democratic ‘everyone-on-the-screen’ campaign”.

Bogdanovic said they wanted to present the new, untried multi-party system as a circus, in which Milosevic "was the only one worthy of being circled by a serious person".

But the phenomenon that some analysts dubbed an “avalanche of candidates”, is more than a historic hangover from the Milosevic era. Money also plays a part.

The law on financing parties entitles each presidential candidate to 4.5 million dinars, or 65,000 euro. In a country where the average monthly salary is 200 euro, this is tempting.

A third incentive is party pride. Many small parties which cannot expect to poll well in the election take part dutifully because they feel the public expects them to.

This is surely why Ivica Dacic, deputy leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS, still led by Milosevic, is touring Serbia with a tiny handful of die-hard supporters. He brands himself the only leftist in the election.

Another "candidate by default" is former justice minister and head of the Christian Democratic Party of Serbia, DHSS, Vladan Batic.

In Serbia's last parliamentary elections, held back in December, Batic's party won less than one per cent of the votes on a campaign to purge officialdom of Montenegrins “who have occupied most of the important directorial posts in Belgrade”.

Bora Kuzmanovic, social psychology professor at the Belgrade faculty of philosophy, says some characters take part mainly from personal reasons, such as “exhibitionism”.

Kuzmanovic may have had in mind Marjan Risticevic, of the People’s Farmers’ Party, who won 2.8 per cent in the November presidential poll after riding to the Serbian parliament on a tractor. He boosted his profile also by saying he wished to "kill all homosexuals".

Jezdimir Vasiljevic, also known as Gazda (Boss) Jezda, is another candidate who belongs firmly in the category of candidates motivated mainly by vanity.

Boss of the notorious Jugoskandik "pyramid" savings bank in the early Nineties, which ruined hundreds of thousands of Serbs, he is currently on trial. That has not stopped him from pledging to “expose all thieves, their protectors and to return to the people everything that was stolen from them”, when he becomes head of state.

"Gazda Jezda", who won less than one per cent when he ran for president in 1992, says he will also push to separate Serbia and Montenegro, but with one important proviso: "All Montenegrin men should go back to Montenegro, but not Montenegrin women. They should stay,” he said.

"What we are seeing is candidates with an unrealistic picture of themselves - a kind of excessive self-confidence," Professor Kuzmanovic observed.

While many Serbs plainly find the presidential parade amusing, others do not. Some NGOs want the threshhold of 10,000 signatures needed for a valid candidacy to be raised, to keep out at least some of the wild cards.

Marko Blagojevic, of the Centre for Free Elections and Democracy, CeSID, proposes a lower limit of 50,000. This, he said, would “make elections more serious and, at the same time, protect the democratic principle that every citizen can stand for president”.

Vladimir Sudar is a journalist with the weekly Reporter.

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