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Serbia: Presidential Elections Announced, But Many Call Vote Unnecessary

By Julie Geshakova

Serbia will hold presidential elections in mid-November. The ballot, announced yesterday, follows two failed presidential races last year. But some are cautioning that November's poll may also fail amid widespread voter disillusionment. Opposition parties say that what Serbia really needs are early parliamentary elections.

Prague, 19 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Serbia's acting president, Natasa Micic, announced yesterday that presidential elections will be held on 16 November.

Micic, who is also speaker of parliament, had previously said she would call the election only after Serbia adopted a new constitution to replace the text dating from the times of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

The government had promised the new constitution would be ready by the end of this month, but work on the draft has ground to a halt amid political bickering. Micic yesterday said she is convinced that presidential elections are a necessary test of the popular will. "In February, when I announced my decision [to put off the election], I clearly stated that if the new Serbian Constitution is not adopted on time, it will be necessary to test the popular will in a presidential election," she said. "This test will now be more important than the risk that the election might fail. Seven months later, because of all that we have gone through in the meantime, I am even more convinced of the need that we all try to do our best so that Serbia, if it could not get a new constitution, gets an elected president. "

Micic said an elected president "could influence the adoption of the new constitution more than an acting one." Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic said no one can deny Serbian citizens their right to elect a president.

Micic's announcement, however, did not silence those who say a presidential ballot is simply not necessary at this time. Some argue the ballot will be a waste of time and money, since voter turnout is unlikely to be higher than in the two previous races. Two elections in 2002, in September and December, both failed due to less than the required 50 percent turnout.

Others say that even if a president is elected, it likely will be only for a limited period. Once a new constitution is adopted, a new ballot might have to be called.

Srdjan Bogosavljevic, director of the Belgrade-based Strategic Marketing polling agency, told RFE/RL: "The presidential election and the new constitution are at odds because the new constitution will deal with the position of the president and his function and with the way he is elected. And judging from earlier [ruling] DOS [coalition] statements, the president will not be elected directly. That's why it was necessary to approve a constitution before calling a presidential election in order to avoid the duplication of calling a presidential election now and later eliminating that function."

The two largest opposition parties, the reformist G-17 Plus party and the conservative Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), say that only early parliamentary elections can solve what they say is a deep political crisis.

Parliamentary elections are not due for another year, but the opposition says the government -- which is dominated by the Democratic Party of slain Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic -- has lost credibility following a series of political scandals. In the most recent, G-17 earlier this month alleged serious voting irregularities at a key parliamentary session. The party claimed former Serbian National Bank Governor Mladan Dinkic, G-17's deputy chairman, was dismissed with the vote of a Democratic Party (DS) deputy who at the time of the session allegedly was on vacation in Turkey. The DS denies the allegations.

Miroljub Labus, the leader of G-17, and Vojislav Kostunica of the DSS competed in last year's failed election -- but now suggest they are no longer interested.

Zivkovic called on all democratic parties to support a joint candidate -- but did not name anyone. Some of the smaller partners in the ruling DOS coalition have already said they will not support a joint candidate.

James Lyon is the Belgrade-based coordinator of the International Crisis Group think tank. He said the reluctance of some politicians now could simply be political maneuvering. "Labus and Kostunica have both said they would not run, but in the meantime things could change and they might run," he said. "We have to see. I think it is still too early for us to say whether either man would run or not. Let's not forget that Mr. Kostunica during the past presidential election said he wouldn't run, and he waited until the very last moment, until the very last day, to announce his candidacy."

Meanwhile, Labus's G-17 and Kostunica's DSS have jointly called for an early parliamentary vote. G-17 yesterday said the government wants to defuse the political crisis by calling a presidential election in mid-November.

Lyon of the International Crisis Group said judging motivation is always difficult, but that the presidential-election date was indeed announced at a time of mounting pressure on the government. "We know that there has been a lot of dissatisfaction, and we know that the public wants to see some changes. They want to see some progress. And this is possibly one way of hoping to defuse some of the tensions that have arisen over a number of the recent political corruption scandals and over some of the scandals involving the parliament and lack of a quorum when some votes were taken," he said.

Four smaller parties in the ruling DOS coalition have accepted Labus's invitation to discuss the possibility of early parliamentary elections. While possibly a sign of deepening rifts, this move does not necessarily mean that early elections are inevitable. Analysts say that, faced with the risk of losing their seats in parliament in a new election, some smaller parties are seeking to build possible new alliances.