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The Belgrade Spring? Not yet

Outside a sportswear shop on the outskirts of Novi Sad, Serbia’s second city, there’s a hoarding of a body builder. Owing to the speed of my taxi I can’t be sure this is a promotion for a fashion label: there’s still a chance the bloke in the picture is in fact an election candidate.

Many citizens, including my taxi driver, don’t seem interested in talking politics, but as a visitor to the country the election is hard to escape. City centres, motorways and even, rather illogically, the airport are plastered in party billboards. And despite a wide variety of options, most bear similar images, often of men looking macho in front of national symbols or scenery.

The most comical political story I heard in my week in Serbia was simply the name of the name of the National Assembly’s third party: G17+.

That’s the limitation of the outside perspective – G17+ probably has a profound meaning in context, but one I have yet to discover. And one can hardly tell the full story when one is only spending a week in a country, without even the native tongue.

But back to what I did see. It’s hard to get away from nationalism browsing the country’s parties. One party’s emblem is a territorial map, which – surprise, surprise – includes Kosovo.

Although none are huge, there are a good few groups in the running with ‘socialist’ or ‘social’ in the name. One is the party of Slobodan Milosevic, and there are plenty more before you get to the Social Democratic Union, with its hope to improve on its one seat in the National Assembly.

The party’s small but lively youth section is motivating like mad ahead of the 6th May vote. Volunteers – many of them students – make a dawn start and are routinely on the go until 3pm, with a schedule featuring many of the same campaign components we see here: phone canvassing, street stalls and door-to-door.

One difference: recording voting intentions is apparently forbidden, so no discarded Reading pads along the Danube.

The party is an electoral pact with the bigger Liberal Democratic Party – somewhat different to our own Lib Dems – but maintains its own operation out of a floor of an old office block in central Belgrade. It was Sunday when we visited, and there was no-one about, but the level of intimacy and trust seemed higher than within our own Labour party – understandable with a smaller party with fewer staff. Our volunteer host unlocked the door without a second thought on the impromptu visit to the youth section’s rooms.

The SDU activists are idealists to say the least. One told me: “Our party is in tune with the Serbian people, but always ten years ahead.” It’s a tough way to fight an election, but there needs to be a party who will stand up for the dispossessed.

Especially when you’re doing politics in a city with both shiny new gated developments and shanty towns. Yes, shanty towns, accommodating a portion of the city’s Roma population in corrugated iron and cardboard. I was told how the city government of Belgrade, led by President Boris Tadic’s “liberal” Democratic Party, attempted to erect an opaque fence round one such shanty town we passed on the tram. As shiny new student accommodation shot up, the mantra was literally “out of sight: out of mind”.

Activists, including some from the SDU joined solidarity demonstrations, and by the time we passed on the tram, the area was once again a poignant reminder of deprivation on a scale one can forget exists in Europe.

One citizen suggested that disillusionment with politics might have reached the level that voter quorum might not be reached, and fresh elections held within six months.

This might seem surprising given that last year 70,000 people turned out on the streets wanting an early election. Yet this was hardly the spirit of Tahrir Square, with the demonstration called by the Serbian People’s Party, somewhere to the right of Tadic’s administration.

The SDU have a large hill to climb before they dominate the scene, but challenging a nationalist consensus is work that needs doing.

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