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Yugoslavia: Third Failure To Elect President Deepens Crisis In Serbia

  • Jolyon Naegele

Yesterday's third round of presidential elections in Serbia failed to ensure a new head of state due to insufficient voter turnout. The front-runner in all three races, Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, is alleging fraud and threatening not to run again.

Prague, 9 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica took first place in yesterday's Serbian presidential elections, just as he did in the previous rounds in September and October.

Kostunica won 58 percent of the vote. Serbian Radical Party leader and ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj won nearly 36 percent, while the third candidate, Borislav Pelevic, an extremist follower of murdered paramilitary leader Zeljko Raznatovic, also known as Arkan, won 3.5 percent.

Kostunica is convinced that his archrival, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, is behind his failure to surpass the minimum 50 percent voter-participation mark required to enable yesterday's race to proceed to a runoff, where the 50 percent minimum would not be required.

For his part, Djindjic suggests that Kostunica has only himself to blame for his failure to raise sufficient voter interest. "I don't think it is so hard in Serbia to get 3 or 4 million people to participate in the elections through a positive campaign, and active relations in the campaign. That's just animating the citizens. That path is not regulated. As I've said, we did not see a place for us in this campaign, and I was told in advance [by Kostunica] that our participation was neither necessary nor desired."

Election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly today issued a statement saying the repeated failure to elect a new Serbian president comes at considerable cost to public confidence and Serbia's international credibility. The observers alluded to the absence of a viable mainstream candidate to oppose Kostunica as contributing to the low level of public participation "by limiting the voters' choice" and aggravating the current political deadlock.

Kostunica says he won't recognize the results and will appeal the expected ruling by the Central Electoral Commission that the latest round is invalid due to voter participation of just 45 percent. Kostunica alleges that the voter registry rolls include people no longer living, people with incorrect registry numbers, juveniles, and duplicate entries. He is also threatening not to run again.

The deputy chairman of Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), Dragan Marsicanin, says the party is appealing the election outcome to the Supreme Court of Serbia, as well as to international organizations. "Initial checks confirm that over 450,000 people are on voter-registration lists in contravention of the law."

Another DSS functionary, Nebojsa Bakarec, who is the party's top legal expert, concurs. "This constitutes the most scandalous possible obstruction of our rights."

But Belgrade political analyst Zoran Lucic, who works for the Center for Free Elections and Democracy, disputes DSS's allegations. "[Claims that] more than 400,000 people either don't have a [national-registration] number or an incorrect number [are unsubstantiated]. The fact that there are people with incorrect numbers on their voter-registration card does not mean that these people cannot be on the electoral rolls. To check whether everyone who should be actually is on the electoral rolls requires plenty of time and lots of money. So the only thing that can be done is to change the methodology of making corrections to the electoral rolls."

The failure to elect a head of state appears to be leading Serbs into an ever-deepening malaise. The speaker of the regional assembly in the northern province of Vojvodina, Nenad Canak, says many voters believe they are being taken advantage of and just won't vote. "Unless there is a quick change in the way the presidential elections are held, and that can be done by adopting some sort of amendment to the constitution, I don't see how Serbia will get a new president."

Voter participation was minimal in the Presevo Valley of southern Serbia, where an insurgency by ethnic Albanians in 2000 and 2001 eventually led to electoral reform and equal representation. Albanian voters have generally boycotted the presidential vote. Zoran Jovanovic heads the electoral commission in Bujanovac municipality. "There was a large abstinence by Albanian voters so that not a single voter showed up at 13 polling stations."

Montenegro, which is due to hold its own presidential elections in two weeks, is watching Serbian developments closely. Montenegrin presidential adviser Miodrag Vukovic said: "The problem is what route Serbia will take -- [whether it will be] the road of further nationalist rallying, placing nationalist issues ahead of democratic ones. The current conflict isn't personal -- the Kostunica-Djindjic conflict is just the result of an ongoing dispute."

Vukovic says he fears, however, that unless political reason prevails, what he calls the confusing current situation will only become more complicated, to the detriment of a new relationship between Serbia and Montenegro.

Dusan Janjic, a political analyst and head of the Forum for Ethnic Relations in Belgrade, said Serbia is in a serious institutional crisis. "Citizens don't know who the government is, what the limits are of those they are voting for. Moreover, the head of state is still Milan Milutinovic -- that's a serious institutional matter. Another issue of motivation is certainly the disintegration of DOS [the coalition of 18 opposition parties that toppled Milosevic two years ago], the definite end of DOS, and that includes [Kostunica's] DSS. They've concluded their mission. And a further aspect are the initial social and political impact of reforms."

Kostunica appears to be no closer to his goal of continuing as head of state as the clock ticks away in the final weeks of the state he currently heads, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia is expected to be replaced by a looser federation, Serbia-Montenegro, as early as 1 January. A Constitutional Charter must still be ratified for that to happen. New posts must still be created, and it is quite likely that Kostunica will remain president of Yugoslavia for several months after Yugoslavia ceases to exist.

At present, the post of president of Serbia is largely powerless, in large part because it is occupied by a crony of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Milan Milutinovic, who is wanted by The Hague tribunal to stand trial for war crimes. Once Milutinovic leaves office early next month, he is expected to lose his immunity and either will surrender voluntarily to the tribunal or else be handed over by Serbian authorities.

By then, Kostunica would be in no position to block Milutinovic's hand-over. In an interview in "The Times" of London today, Kostunica says he wants to halt further cooperation with the tribunal and try suspected war criminals in Serbia.

In lieu of an elected successor to Milutinovic, the speaker of the Serbian parliament, Natasa Micic, will become acting president. She spoke last night with RFE/RL's Serbian unit. "The current president, Milutinovic, serves until 5 January. From 5 January, this duty is undertaken by the speaker of parliament. Of course, I'll have constitutional authority of the future president of the republic to perform those tasks, so I'll be able to return [vote] laws to parliament for another vote, and I can put questions to the government." Micic says her primary function will continue to be speaker of parliament.