Friday, November 01, 2013

Balkans: Kosovo's 'Strong Party' Attracts Cynical Votes By Mocking Everything

Strong Party Chairman and mayoral candidate Visar Arifaj (Official website)

RFE/RL Copyright (c) 2013. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

Kosovo's 'Strong Party' Attracts Cynical Votes By Mocking Everything

By Ziyad Gashi

PRISTINA -- Stray dogs will be trained and used as public transportation in the winter. Urinals will be installed in the entranceway to every public building. Downtown Pristina will host a Formula 1 auto race.

These are just a few of the eyebrow-raising promises being put forth by the Strong Party, a political newcomer contesting Kosovo's local and municipal elections to be held on November 3. The party -- perhaps better translated as "the Strong Man Party" -- is making headlines with a richly humorous and steadfastly tongue-in-cheek campaign for mayor and city council in the capital, Pristina.

And its irreverent approach seems to have gained enough traction among Pristina's young, weary, and cynical electorate to enable it to pick up at least a few seats and to pave the way for participation in the next national elections.

First Priority: Renovate The Office

Strong Party Chairman and mayoral candidate Visar Arifaj -- who actually uses the title "Legendary President" and who is fond of wearing a coat and tie with shorts -- told RFE/RL with disarming honesty what his priorities in office will be.

"Like any other mayor, my priority will be to renovate my office," he says. "Of course, I will throw away everything that is in the office now, starting with the chair, the other furniture, the computers, the cars. Yes -- this will be my first task as soon as I become mayor."

There are no reliable preelection polls in Kosovo, though the Strong Party's support has been estimated at between 4 and 7 percent. The party was formed and registered in June, and already more than 61,000 people have "liked" its Facebook page. Additionally, Arifaj's personal Facebook page has garnered 28,000 "likes."

The satirical party's latest video, a rousing musical number called "We Will Be Millionaires," has been viewed on YouTube nearly 40,000 times in just a few days.

The party's platform, called the Lorem Ipsum, a publishing term meaning "filler text used to present a font or design without the distraction of meaningful content," playfully turns Kosovo's abiding problems on their heads.

Regarding the country's notorious 40 percent unemployment rate, for instance, the Strong Party says the real problem is that 60 percent of the people still have to work. In an interview posted on Facebook, Arifaj says he is disturbed by the stereotype that Montenegrins are lazy, saying "People in Kosovo are lazy too and should be appreciated for that." The party has set the goal of achieving a 100 percent unemployment rate.

Separate 'Sports Teams'

Asked about the tensions between the country's ethnic Albanians and ethnic Serbs, the 26-year-old Arifaj responds that "the best way toward cooperation is separation" -- since it is nonsense to talk of cooperation within a single group of people. The party intends to promote cooperation by "separating" Kosovar Albanians and Serbs not only in terms of ethnicity, but also along the lines of the neighborhoods they live in, their favorite sports teams, and what kinds of food they like.

Always eloquent and witty, Arifaj summed up the essence of his campaign with a promise he seems certain to keep.

"I promise that I will always make promises," he says. "Promises that are beautiful and enjoyable so that citizens can feel relieved that someone is thinking about solutions for this country. This does not mean that these promises will be kept. But they are enough to comfort the people. How these promises are realized is a very minor issue."

It seems the Strong Party rarely misses a chance to make a point. Under Kosovo's election law, at least 30 percent of all candidates on a party list must be women. The country's traditional parties have long moaned that a lack of qualified and interested people makes it difficult to meet that requirement.

The Strong Party's list, pointedly, has only 30 percent men.

Election officials in Kosovo have certified 103 party lists and 7,932 candidates for the November 3 elections nationwide. Preliminary results are expected on November 4 and official ones, on November 6. Any necessary runoff elections will be held on December 1.

The Strong Party's -- and Arifaj's -- future depends in large measure on how seriously Pristina voters take the joke. But the ever-confident Arifaj is already looking to the future.

"In this election, I am a candidate for mayor," he says. "But it's understandable that my intention is to become prime minister and then president. But these are long-term goals."
RFE/RL Balkans Service correspondent Gresa Kraja contributed to this report from Pristina, and RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed from Prague