A bespectacled man flashes a game-show smile as he saunters onto a stage facing walls filled with 100-plus screens. On each of those screens is a person applauding and cheering. The man — Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic — faces the crowd of screens and launches into a 20-minute campaign speech. The people on the screens clap and whoop at each talking point. At the end, he waves and walks away from the lectern.
"Like 'Black Mirror,'" said a headline in Austria's Der Standard, referring to the sci-fi series. "This is what a political rally looks like in the time of corona."
"Looks very dystopian and creepy," tweeted Sergej Dojcinovic, a Serbian student in Amsterdam.
As recently as last week, Vucic's supporters were still gathering in person to support the populist president, who has run Serbia either as prime minister or president since 2014. The virtual rally, which took place Saturday, came ahead of Serbia's parliamentary elections, scheduled for June 21. They were postponed in April because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Serbia, which has confirmed more than 10,000 COVID-19 cases and 230 deaths, has begun lifting its coronavirus restrictions and the parliament voted earlier this month to end a state of emergency.
Vucic, whose Serbian Progressive Party has been criticized for stifling opposition and harassing independent media, is expected to win next month's election. The leader of a small, right-wing party is on a hunger strike to try to postpone elections for another six months, saying Serbia's political system has "neither the health nor the democratic conditions" to hold them now.
Vucic, a former propagandist for Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, is pushing ahead. "They can shout insults at us," he said in a tweet about his virtual rally. "But we must show what a modern Serbia looks like. The Serbia of the future."
There's no roadmap for virtual campaigns. But the idea is not completely new. In 2007, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich celebrated his conservative policies through an appearance on Second Life. And during French elections in 2017, leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon transported himself to seven rallies at once using holograms.