Although Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić easily won the Serbian presidential election on Sunday with 56.1% of the vote, one of his opponents also stole headlines. Luka Maksimović, a 25-year old university student, ran in the election as Ljubiša “Beli” Preletačević, a satirical figure whose name means “the guy in white who switches his beliefs for political gain.” 

Student and 2017 presidential candidate Luka Maksimovic, 25, poses for a picture as his alter ego 'Ljubisa "Beli" Preletacevic' in Belgrade
Beli, played by Luka Maksimovic, in his signature white suit. | Marko Djurica, Reuters

Aleksandar Vucic, when he was Minister of Defense, meeting with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta at the Pentagon in 2012, U.S. Dept of Defense
Aleksandar Vucic, Serbian Prime Minister and now President-Elect, meeting with American Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta back in 2012 | U.S. Department of Defense

In playing the character of Beli, Maksimović was satirizing all of the worst qualities in Serbian politicians. The persona of Beli has a fake university degree, a large but unexplained amount of wealth, and makes grand populist promises that he has no intention of backing up. As he noted while campaigning in the city of Kovacica, “There will be no corruption — excluding my own, of course,” he says. “Please send all money directly to my pockets.” On top of all of this, Maksimović’s appearance is certainly the most memorable of any political candidate in recent memory. Sporting a man bun, showing off gaudy jewelry, and wearing a white suit (to symbolize his purity as a politician), Maksimović entered the political scene (literally) on a white horse.

His political party, Sarmu probo nisi, which means “you haven’t tasted the sarma (stuffed cabbage)” was created as a satirical spoof but surprisingly placed second in regional elections in Mladenovac last year, winning 12 seats on the municipal council. His success led him to run in the presidential election.

Beli was the most active of candidates on social media, striking a chord with young voters, his main constituency. His populist tactics included buying townsfolk ice cream, charming grandmas, and taking selfies with supporters. On other occasions he was shown doing pushups and sucking raw eggs.

Vladimir Gajic, a member of Serbia’s Electoral Commission (RIK), noted that Maksimović’s Beli persona was a revolt against the established political order. “The appearance of Beli is part of a global trend, a rebellion and resistance to current political establishments,” he said.

But unlike populist candidates in other countries, Beli’s points were more wholesome. Unlike the campaign rhetoric of Donald Trump, Geert Wilders (Netherlands), or Marine Le Pen (France), Beli’s campaign did not include negative portrayals of minorities or immigrants. Instead, it is simply a satirical critique of corruption in Serbian politics and the failure of Serbia’s traditional political parties in achieving meaningful change (although it has gone down since 2016, Serbian unemployment is still at a high 13%).

If Beli is the worst product of populism that Serbia produces, the country can count itself lucky. Satire has often been used throughout history as a vehicle for achieving real change. For example, Voltaire’s famous 18th century work Candide used satire to take on a slew of topics, everything from social pride to organized religion, in order to highlight problems in society.

Vučić’s government has used increasingly authoritarian tactics in recent years, including cracking down on the freedom of the press. Vučić himself is the former chief propagandist for Slobodan Milosevic’s government, the one that committed genocidal atrocities in the 1990s following the breakup of Yugoslavia. But more recently he has been a champion of pro-European Union beliefs. Despite economic problems and the issues flooding Europe in recent months, Serbia has remained relatively stable. But the question about whether domestic peace justifies an authoritarian style of rule naturally still remains.

Beli on a white horse, BIRN
Beli rides in on a white horse | BIRN

Vučić’s strong mandate (the next closest candidate was Sasa Jankovic with only 15.5% of the vote) means the opposition will have to regroup and strategize anew. Although Maksimović’s antics may be dismissed as mere comedy by some, they also point to a vein of dissatisfaction in the Serbian electorate that could potentially be tapped by politicians in the future. Perhaps Beli really is a shining knight on a white horse, whose use of satire will improve the Serbian political establishment, if the politicians and the people taste the sarma that is.