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New Series no.1 November-December 1997
The rise of Seselj
by Svetlana Dudevic Lukic

Vojislav Seselj has come a long way since the day in November 1990 when, as a frequently charged, convicted and imprisoned Chetnik wearing a faded T-shirt with the motto 'Serb Crown' (in English), he was proposed as a candidate in the first multi-party elections by a group of 293 citizens. Today, as leader of the strongest opposition party (SRS), he obtains with the greatest of ease 220,637 signatures for his candidature to become president of Serbia.

Seselj could unquestionably thank the ruling Socialists (SPS) for his entry into parliament in 1991 and the creation of his Serb Radical party. The city committee of the SPS agreed on 30 May 1991, at Slobodan Milosevic's express demand, to have Vojislav Seselj elected to the empty seat for Rakovica. Cooperation with him was effective, quick and discreet, and he asked little in return. For having helped to bring down the Vojvodina leadership in 1988, he had asked only for his passport to be returned. The regime needed an example of 'constructive opposition' in order to show its democratic nature, so Seselj gained wide access to the media under its control. There, with his radicalism on the national issue intact, he proved ready to cooperate on 'domestic matters' with the ruling elite, directing his fire rather at the opposition, which he accused of seeking power at the expense of fundamental national interests. With the outbreak of war the popularity of the SRS soared: by August 1991 it had already won the sympathy of 18% of the Serbian electorate (excluding Kosovo). Behaving like a sister party to the SPS, it attracted supporters disappointed with the ruling party domestically but still sympathetic to its belligerant nationalist policies.

Seselj's populist movement based its self-promotion on a simple formula, which combined nationalist bragging ('patriotism'), social demagogy ('equal wages and pensions for all'), support for the central pillar of the regime (Slobodan Milosevic for president), and frequent accusations that the opposition was guilty of betraying the nation. Seselj relied on the advantage he enjoyed, thanks to the privileged position his support for the ruling party gave him in the media. Both SRS and SPS derived advantages from the population's poor education, as a result of which the voters fell for simple explanations and a Manichean perception of reality; also from its radicalization, as a consequence of the emigration of young and educated people and the influx of refugees.

After winning 23% of the vote at the December 1992 elections, Seselj's Radicals took 30% of the seats in the Serbian parliament and gained great political influence over the goverment: an influence which in the first half of 1993 began in certain respects to acquire the form of an SPS/SRS condominium. In January 1993 Seselj declared that he would wait for all Milosevic's mandates to run out, after which he would run for the presidency.

The success of Seselj's populism has been explained in terms of a fertile social base. The fall of socialism has shaken the social and political orientation of crucial social layers - the working class and the socialist middle class - while the war and sanctions have totally destroyed their social and psychological balance, leading them into a state of complete political disorientation. Vojislav Seselj's own great political talent, however, has certainly played a significant role too. His approach is based on simplicity, brazenness and a metaphysics of conspiracy, while his undoubted intelligence and eloquence have made him an unsurpassed orator.

Seselj and his party have also survived periods in which relations with the ruling party cooled following the latter''s turn to peace, when the SPS sacrificed relations with the Radicals to working with its new satellite, the United Yugoslav Left (JUL). For all that in July 1994 Mira Markovic (Milosevic's wife and the leader of JUL) dismissed Seselj as a 'reincarnation of a Turkish tyrant in the shape of of a deserter from the Bosnian front ... neither a Serb nor a man', he has in fact methodically and patiently dispelled any idea that he is just a passing phenomenon. Even those who treat him as a primitive nationalist have had to admit that he is a skilled political operator, with an exceptional talent for public performance and well thought-out moves.

Some people believe that Seselj and the SRS have never ceased to be an instrument in the hands of the regime, serving when necessary to help it survive in power. They do not think the leader of the Radicals will be able to increase his influence in the electoral body. Regardless of his numerous sympathisers, Seselj will never seriously endanger the Socialists. This is not just because theoretical extremists cannot ever win a majority in elections, but because the Radicals' essential role is to frighten the international community into continuing to support the SPS - while, of course, continuing to discredit the democratic opposition.

According to another theory, the Socialists are unable to force back the genie now released from the bottle. Socialists and Radicals, moreover, appeal to the same layer of voters: the less well educated, workers, pensioners, lumpen elements, inhabitants of marginal areas, impoverished layers open to authoritarian projects. Each success for the Radicals weakens the Socialists. But there is a limit to what the Socialists will tolerate.

The voters are unlikely to study the Radical Party's hundred-point programme, divided as it is into national, political, economic, social and cultural sections. In it, the Radicals endorse 'necessary and unlimited freedom of all forms of artistic expression' and 'further development of entertainment, as an area of social awareness' - in an attempt to counter the frequent complaint that they do not have enough of the skilled and educated people necessary to bring about Serbia's prosperity. As for the world at large, this is what the well-known lawyer Tim Fila has to say: 'If Seselj wins, I don't give a damn what Europe will say. I don't want our president to apologize to those who have been murdering our people, to those who have bombed us. The main resistance to Seselj will come when he declares that he won't send a single Serb to The Hague. It is precisely for this reason that I and many others will vote for him.'

NIN (Belgrade), 5 September 1997

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