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Yugoslavia: Opposition Favored, But Election Outcome Uncertain

With less than 48 hours to go, the leading opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica is favored to win Sunday's presidential poll in Yugoslavia. What is less clear is whether Kostunica's main rival, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, will concede defeat if he loses -- and whether Serbians will take to the streets to protest if he does not. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos looks at the situation.

Prague, 22 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Vojislav Kostunica, a 56-year-old lawyer, has built up tremendous momentum in past months, garnering support from an electorate that has in the past largely dismissed opposition leaders. He's the front-runner in a field of five candidates.

At a rally in Belgrade this week, Kostunica urged the 150,000 people in attendance to support his own vision of what he called making Yugoslavia "a normal, European, democratic country."

Yugoslav army chief Nebojsa Pavkovic said this week the army, which has supported Milosevic, would not oppose Kostunica's taking office if he won the presidential election. But Pavkovic recently described the three elections (federal presidential and parliamentary elections and local elections in Serbia) to be held Sunday as "D-Day" for the army. He also said Western countries had planned to stir unrest to support the opposition and that such interference would not be tolerated.

Adding more uncertainty to the presidential vote, Yugoslav Prime Minister Momir Bulatovic yesterday told a private television station in Montenegro (Elmag) that Milosevic could stay in power until the middle of next year. He said the Yugoslav constitution allows him to do so. Effectively, that would mean two presidents in power at once.

Analysts say these statements are part of a government plan to allow Milosevic to claim victory even if he loses the poll to Kostunica.

Gareth Evans, president of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think-tank, tells RFE/RL the most likely scenario is Milosevic will hijack a Kostunica victory but that the public probably will not revolt:

"The most likely scenario, as we see it, is that, one, the votes will be there to take Milosevic out. [And] two, he will put sufficiently comprehensive arrangements in place to enable him to claim that he's won the election after all. [Thirdly,] this will generate a very hostile reaction from the community, but that it probably won't escalate into massive street revolution with the support of the army and the police of the kind that has swept popular movements into power against corrupt authorities and regimes elsewhere."

Evans's group uses both local and international experts to analyze potential crisis situations. It's been especially active in the Balkans.

He says his analysts in Serbia believe the opposition will react coolly no matter what the outcome. He says activists and leaders in Serbia have been facing increasing intimidation and repression and are aware that Milosevic -- who retains control of the army and the police -- could easily impose martial law if mass protests occur.

Evans outlines three other possible scenarios that he says are less likely -- none of these foresee Kostunica becoming president. The first scenario is that Milosevic calls off the election at the last minute on the basis of some national crisis that he himself has created. The second is that people fail to vote for Kostunica because of fear Milosevic will crack down and make their lives harder than ever. And third, Milosevic accepts the democratic outcome of the election but tries to dismantle the federal republic of Yugoslavia and name himself president of Serbia.

A leading member of the opposition, Zoran Djindjic, tells RFE/RL that he has not ruled out street protests if Milosevic declares victory, but says the extent of Milosevic's voter manipulation will determine whether or not people actually protest the result:

"We don't expect free and fair elections, but we expect a clear victory for our list and our candidate. It depends on the result. If this victory is clear enough, maybe Milosevic will take the risk and cancel this result. It depends on the people to protect their votes and we are ready to call them to protect their votes. But it depends on the real situation on Monday."

Both Evans and Djindjic say the opposition will be monitoring the polling stations to guard against fraud. The opposition also says it will be covering polling stations in UN-administered Kosovo, the overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian province that has traditionally been Milosevic's favorite place for ballot stuffing. Kosovar Albanians have said they will boycott the vote, and a leader of the Serb community -- estimated at around 50,000 -- recently said that he and other Serbs will support Kostunica.

Ballot stuffing is also possible in Montenegro, Serbia's sister republic in federal Yugoslavia, where western-leaning President Milo Djukanovic has said he will boycott the poll. Nevertheless, many of the more than 600,000 citizens in the republic -- some of whom support Milosevic -- will participate.

Polls open at 0700 local time and close at 2000 local time. Preliminary results are not expected until early morning (0100 hours) on Monday.

If no candidate takes more than 50 percent of votes cast in the first round, a runoff between the top two candidates will be held in two weeks.