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Analysis: Uncertainty Clouds Serbian Presidential Vote

  • Patrick Moore --> Serbia's runoff presidential election on 27 June seems set to involve much more than just filling a largely symbolic post. Issues on the table range from Serbia's relations with the West to the future of the government.

The final official results of the 13 June first round of voting show that Tomislav Nikolic of Vojislav Seselj's Serbian Radical Party (SRS) won 30.6 percent of the vote among a field of 15 candidates, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. His opponent in the 27 June runoff will be reformist candidate Boris Tadic of the Democratic Party, who took 27.3 percent of the vote in an election widely seen as a barometer of Serbian political sentiment.

Making his political debut, business kingpin Bogoljub Karic received 18.2 percent of the ballots cast, while Dragan Marsicanin of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and the governing coalition took 13.3 percent. Many observers consider Marsicanin's showing as disappointing as Karic's was impressive.

Under recent legislation, the ballot is valid even though the turnout was only 47.7 percent of all registered voters.
A European diplomat said Nikolic has probably peaked, but that "Tadic is a rising star."

An unnamed European diplomat told Reuters in Belgrade on 14 June that Nikolic probably has peaked, but that "Tadic is a rising star" who might well win in the second round, picking up the majority of the votes from the defeated candidates.

But several observers have suggested that the low turnout for the first round demonstrates continuing widespread voter apathy, particularly among the young. Many analysts added that the impressive showing by Karic, who promised to create hundreds of thousands of jobs, indicates that poor voters in particular are concerned with economic issues and dissatisfied with the ability of the political establishment to improve the economy.

It is not clear whether Nikolic's showing reveals primarily the continuing popularity of nationalism or a deep general alienation from the governing parties. He is nonetheless expected to pick up some second round support from Karic voters disgusted with the political establishment.

In any event, London's "The Independent" reported on 14 June that "some fear a victory for Mr. Nikolic could have a catastrophic impact on Serbia's economy, driving away foreign investors and stalling desperately needed aid from Western financial institutions." Tadic noted that "the world is watching.... We cannot solve our problems without foreign help," the daily added. Meanwhile in Luxembourg, EU foreign ministers called on Serbian voters to "say no to the past" and back Tadic.

Referring to Nikolic, London's "The Times" observed on 14 June that "the man they call 'the gravedigger' looked as if he would start burying Serbia's hopes of European integration last night." The daily believes that "while the rest of Europe unites, much of Serbia continues to wallow in a Balkan vortex of nationalist pride, maudlin self-pity, and stubborn refusal to understand how the world has moved on since the collapse in October 2000" of the regime of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Meanwhile, Serbian political leaders have begun preparing for the second round. Officials of the governing G-17 Plus political party said in Belgrade on 14 June that they will support Tadic. G-17 Plus leader and Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus said after talks with Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica of the DSS that it will be clear after the runoff whether the government will remain in power or call new elections.

Finance Minister Mladjan Dinkic, who is deputy leader of G-17 Plus, said that a Nikolic victory "will push Serbia back into the 1990s" and frighten off the international financial institutions and foreign investors whose support Serbia needs, "The Independent" reported.

The governing Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) and its leader Vuk Draskovic called on "all democratic forces" to back Tadic, the Belgrade daily "Danas" reported. Tadic, for his part, told RFE/RL that among his immediate tasks is to start "very constructive" talks with Karic.

But the big question mark is Kostunica, whose DSS is the largest party in the coalition. As of the morning of 16 June he had not made any endorsement, although he had met with both Nikolic and Tadic.

Kostunica's reasons for hesitating are not difficult to fathom, because none of the choices he faces is pleasant. It is highly unlikely that he would endorse any candidate from the SRS, but were he to back Nikolic, Kostunica would most probably face international isolation and the loss of his smaller coalition partners. Withholding any endorsement would widely be seen as a failure to join with other "reformers" against the SRS and hence be regarded as tantamount to an endorsement of Nikolic.

The main obstacle preventing Kostunica from joining Labus and Draskovic in endorsing Tadic is the bitter rivalry between the Democratic Party and the DSS. Political expediency may yet prompt Kostunica to swallow his pride and back Tadic, but this is not a foregone conclusion.

In any event, the second round could just be the start of Kostunica's troubles. Nikolic, Labus, and Marsicanin have all suggested that new general elections might or will be in order after the second round. In that case, the prime minister would find himself entering a campaign in the wake of Marsicanin's humiliating showing in the first round. Were the DSS also to finish a parliamentary election behind not only the SRS and the Democrats but also Karic as well, Kostunica's days as party leader might be numbered.

If Kostunica is able to avoid an early general election, he will be under strong pressure at home and abroad to bring the Democrats into the government, particularly if Tadic wins the presidency. The Democrats could then be expected to drive a much harder bargain than they did at the beginning of the year, when Kostunica opted instead for a minority government with the parliamentary support of Milosevic's Socialists.

By forming a broad-based coalition of parties largely untainted by association with the Milosevic regime, Kostunica would at least ensure for himself the good will of Serbia's foreign sources of economic and political support, who had hoped for a "reformist" coalition after the December 2003 elections. But there is also another possibility, namely that Kostunica will extract himself at some point from a no-win situation by resigning. This would enable him to build up his strength from the political sidelines while others are left with the thankless task of governing an impoverished, crime-ridden country that lags well behind most of its neighbors in Euro-Atlantic integration. Quitting might seem out of character for Kostunica, but rumors of his resignation were so widespread in Belgrade on 15 June that the government felt compelled to issue a press release denying them.