Why you should care
Jon Stewart proved satire can convey as much truth as straight news. Kosovo’s Strong Party may also be the bearer of uncomfortable truth. Its satire might even win some votes.
In a dim corner of a hostel bar in downtown Pristina, young people huddle in a circle, knocking back round after round of local brew. Cigarette smoke drifts into the night sky. The laughter grows louder. It’s not how you’d imagine a pre-election powwow.
But the Strong Party is no ordinary outfit. Its platform planks include installing urinals in every Pristina building, selling ad space on the national flag and legalizing marijuana (to keep the citizenry happy). A hostel bar is the perfect forum.
Founded last year by a group of Kosovars fed up with the political status quo, the Strong Party is agitprop supreme, a satirical sideswipe at a political arena marked by corruption and an economy that’s flailing. It didn’t take long for them to lose patience: Born in 2008, Kosovo is Europe’s youngest democracy. Parliament deadlocks over issues like forming an army and reserving assembly seats for ethnic minorities, but the Strong Party stands for something else: mirth. Also, a Grand Prix racecourse in the middle of Pristina, the eradication of green space and, more generally, world domination.
No one expects a Strong Party landslide this Sunday, when Kosovo heads to the polls to elect a new parliament. Rather, the Democratic Party of Kosovo, led by former guerrilla turned prime minister Hashim Thaci, is expected to win a close race, in which the Strong Party won’t much place.
We are so conservative that we see clothes as something unnatural and a modernist project.
But that hasn’t stopped the party, led by 27-year-old ‘Legendary President’ Visar Arifaj, from stealing headlines at home and abroad. Its mission? To “come to power to control public money in the interest of its supporters and the like-minded.” In the run-up to elections, candidates have been shedding their clothing. A campaign poster, issued by the Strong Party Office for Media and Propaganda, features Arifaj holding a bunch of grapes, Roman emperor-style, covering his modesty with a book bearing the party’s latest motto, the “New Vision.” It’s all to prove the Strong Party’s “transparency,” goes the PR.
The poster’s chief aim is, according to Arifaj, “to show the voters that we are very close to them and as such have nothing to hide.” The Strong Party, he adds, wants to establish “an intimate relationship with the voter, be that a handshake, or simply employing a modest appearance.”
Besides, adds Arifaj, “We are so conservative that we see clothes as something unnatural and a modernist project.”
Of 193 U.N. member states, only 107 recognize Kosovo as a nation, after it declared independence from Serbia. For most of its life, Kosovo has been ravaged by rapid privatization, which has left many of its 1.8 million citizens in the cold. Unemployment is at an all-time high — some estimate it at 40 percent — and youth unemployment is even higher. Then there’s corruption: The country ranks 111th of 177 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, and many citizens believe self-dealing is entrenched. “There is no real fight against corruption, at least not an effective one,” says investigative journalist Krenar Gashi.
Strong Party Vice President Yll Rugova takes another view: “Kosovar politics is not bad at all. It is an epitome of global politics. With exaggerated unrealistic promises, great electoral spectacles and shows, it’s poetic really.”
“Corruption is a bad name for what actually is just a symbolic contribution for leaders and tireless bureaucrats, who are contributing on a daily basis for the benefit of our society,” adds Rugova, who’s a graphic designer by day. “Why not give a symbolic 15 percent for each transaction so there is no corruption, just a minor contribution from the people to our great humble leaders.”
Parliament’s military proposal has reopened Kosovo’s ethnic divides. About 92 percent Kosovars are ethnic Albanians, but the north is heavily populated by Serbs. Until this week they had vowed to boycott Sunday’s vote. The city of Mitrovica stands at the mouth of those ethnic tensions, split along either side of its Ibar River into Albanian and Serb neighborhoods. The latter reside largely on the north side of the river, and act semiautonomously from Pristina.
Corruption is a bad name for what actually is just a symbolic contribution for leaders and tireless bureaucrats.
Never mind the ethnic tensions: Arifaj and his acolytes marched through town on Wednesday, pausing to plant the Strong Party flag atop a Serb-populated hillside. “Zone occupations” will, the party claims, be an integral part of its platform.
A recent survey suggested that around half the electorate actively dislike the Strong Party’s sardonic crusade, while only five percent “support” the Strong Party. And especially in a conservative, largely Muslim nation, many may balk at voting in a naked prime minister.
But last November’s local elections tell a slightly different tale. Arifaj ran for mayor of Pristina, and wound up winning a seat on the city’s communal assembly. It’s not exactly world domination, but it does suggest the party’s message is hitting home among the capital’s young, café-going electorate. “The Strong Party has major support among Pristina youngsters,” says analyst Imer Mushkolaj. “The chairman won a seat — there’s the proof.”
Make no mistake: Arifaj and the Strong Party are unlikely to be leading Kosovo come Monday morning. But if their goal is a finger in the eye of the country’s political elite, they’ve come a long way already.