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Yugoslavia: Calls For Boycotts Could Throw Serbian Presidential Runoff Into 'Chaos And Anarchy'

  • Jolyon Naegele

With the second round of Serbia's presidential elections just nine days away (13 October), there is growing concern that voter turnout will fail to surpass 50 percent, the minimum needed for the elections to be declared valid. RFE/RL reports that boycotts by candidates who failed to make it into the runoff could lead to what Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica terms "chaos and anarchy."

Belgrade, 4 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The specter of yet another Yugoslav government crisis looms amid calls for voters to boycott the 13 October presidential-election runoff. A minimum of 50 percent of registered voters plus one must vote for the election to be declared valid.

Turnout was just 55.5 percent in the first round on 29 September.

Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica took first place with nearly 31 percent of the vote. Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus took second place with 27.4 percent. Ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj came in third with 23.2 percent of the vote and is now out of the running.

Kostunica's and Labus's current posts will disappear with the replacement in a few months of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia by a new common state to be known as Serbia-Montenegro.

Seselj yesterday became the latest candidate to call on voters to boycott the runoff because of what he alleges were irregularities. "Due to all the political circumstances that emerged in Serbia's presidential elections, we as the leadership of the party have decided in consultation with our district and local election committees that the Serbian Radical Party is boycotting the second round of the presidential elections in Serbia," Seselj said.

Seselj has toned down his virulent anti-Croatian, anti-Bosniak, and anti-Albanian language in favor of concentrating on dissatisfaction with belt-tightening by denouncing presidential candidate Labus, a leading economic reformer. "Miroljub Labus is a spy, a criminal, a mafioso, and traitor. Miroljub Labus is a candidate of the [Surcin] mafia. Miroljub Labus is the personal candidate of Zoran Djindjic," Seselj said.

Djindjic is prime minister of Serbia, an economic reformer and Kostunica's chief day-to-day rival in determining the political direction Serbia should follow and the degree of economizing that is tolerable. Labus has dismissed the allegations.

Seselj said he cannot back Kostunica because Kostunica is the "main culprit" behind bringing DOS to power in Serbia and putting Djindjic and Labus in office. DOS, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, was the 18-party opposition coalition that defeated Slobodan Milosevic two years ago and that has ruled Serbia ever since. Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) has quit the coalition. Earlier this year, DOS replaced DSS parliamentary deputies with representatives of other DOS member parties.

During the first round of voting on 29 September, pollsters determined that 12 percent of voters had no intention of voting in the runoff if their candidate failed in the first round. That number may be far larger now, however, as a result of Seselj's calling on his bloc of 800,000 voters to invalidate the elections by boycotting the second round.

At least two other parties also will say they will boycott the second round.

For his part, Kostunica said he is convinced he will win and is urging the public to vote in the second round because Serbia needs a president. He said that if one is not chosen, Djindjic's government, which he says has practically abolished parliament by expelling his party's deputies, would gain control over the executive and legislative branches. "One should participate in the elections so that Serbia does not definitively descend into chaos and anarchy, as well as so that the EU-mediated constitutional charter [replacing Yugoslavia with Serbia-Montenegro], admittance to the Council of Europe, and negotiations on a stabilization and association agreement with the EU are not delayed indefinitely. But there is one more reason. Instability in Serbia would lead to instability in the Balkans, I think above all by Albanian extremists in Kosovo, southern Serbia, and Macedonia," Kostunica said.

Asked by RFE/RL to clarify what he meant by Albanian extremists taking advantage of the situation, Kostunica backed off and said: "I was talking about Serbia, but this applies anywhere. Any instability can have an effect on [the situation of] others, on Kosovo, Albania, or Macedonia, and so on. That's clear, in the sense that any state -- not just Serbia -- should be firm, have institutions, a strong legal order, and deal with organized crime," Kostunica said.

Kostunica said he wants to be a president for all of Serbia's citizens and that every vote is respected and welcome. He noted that he participated in an unsuccessful boycott of the 1997 elections, which failed in its attempt to unseat Milosevic.

Professor Srdjan Bogosavljevic heads a Belgrade-based polling institution called the Strategic Marketing & Research Institute. He disagreed in part with Kostunica's analysis. "Not to elect a president is a democratic process that would lead in the next round to greater motivation, a better campaign, [and] more political arguments for electing a president. It won't result in anarchy and chaos, but it will result in political instability," Bogosavljevic said.

He predicted such instability will lead to early parliamentary elections in a year or so.

Bogosavljevic said Kostunica's image as an honest, respected leader resonates across a broad spectrum of voters, from ultranationalists to pro-European reformers. He said Kostunica's serious appearance does not hurt his standing, since, "Not a single politician has ever succeeded here by smiling."

In contrast, he said, the market reformer Djindjic, due to what Bogosavljevic said is his arrogance and lack of empathy with a poverty-stricken country, leaves few voters feeling neutral -- either you support him or you oppose him.

Labus, who is not officially a DOS candidate, has an image problem. A large share of non-DOS voters are indifferent toward him. His opponents, in a bid to turn this indifference into opposition, constantly warn voters that a vote for Labus is a vote for Djindjic. As a result, Labus is unlikely to be able to increase his support in the second round, in contrast to Kostunica, who will probably get more votes in the second round but not necessarily enough for the elections to be declared valid.

New elections would have to be organized at a later date.

Bogosavljevic noted one other aspect of a failure to elect a president in the second round. The current president of Serbia, Milan Milutinovic, whose term expires at the end of this year, might remain in office. Once he retires, Milutinovic loses his Serbian immunity from prosecution by The Hague tribunal, where he has been indicted for war crimes.

Branislav Kovacevic heads a regional pro-democracy party in central Serbia, the Kragujevac-based Coalition for Sumadija, and is a member of DOS's ruling council. He favors Labus over Kostunica, whom he perceives as a nationalist. Kovacevic said the public is inadequately informed about the election. "The citizens don't know all the subtle differences that exist between the candidates, and they are not informed. So they vote according to sympathies rather than rational arguments. That's the main reason that the candidates got as many votes as they did," Kovacevic said.

But Kovacevic and Bogosavljevic reject suggestions that the strong showing for Seselj in the second round represents a swing to the right, since Seselj received the standard bloc of 800,000 votes he and his Serbian Radical Party have always received.

The difference this time was low turnout, which meant that his bloc of faithful voters appeared relatively stronger.