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Serbia: Low Voter Turnout In Presidential Poll Raises Many Questions

Low voter turnout invalidated yesterday's second round of parliamentary elections in Serbia, forcing new presidential elections to be held within three months. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports on the likely impact of the failed elections on Serbia's stability.

Prague, 14 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- It was an election with no real winners and -- as yet -- no real losers.

Twenty percent of those who cast ballots for one of the 11 candidates in the first round of Serbia's presidential election two weeks ago heeded calls by several parties to boycott yesterday's runoff.

A still-valid law enacted under former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic requires that a minimum of 50 percent of registered voters plus one participate for an election to be declared valid.

Yesterday's turnout was just 45.5 percent, invalidating Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica's victory. He managed to attract 800,000 additional votes than he did in the first round, winning two-thirds (66.4 percent) of all votes cast. The runner-up, reformer Miroljub Labus, received even fewer votes than he did in the first round and less than half the number of votes cast for Kostunica.

Kostunica will remain president of Yugoslavia and Labus the deputy prime minister of Yugoslavia, pending the replacement several months from now of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia with Serbia-Montenegro.

Kostunica appeared happy with his strong showing, despite the low turnout.

"I would like to thank all those citizens of Serbia who cast their votes, especially those who voted for me. You see that there are almost 2 million people who voted for me, and I must say, without any false modesty, that I'm very proud of the result and very satisfied with it. I would also like to thank the opposing candidate, Miroljub Labus, for participating in this contest."

Labus, who campaigned on a belt-tightening ticket of economic reform, warned that failure to elect a president will jeopardize the country's image but not its economic transformation:

"Serbia must value work rather than idleness. Serbia must value results and not empty promises. Serbia must be led by the best toward Europe. Only in this way can Serbia be the leader in the Balkans. And I deeply believe that someday Serbia will be the leader in the Balkans."

Labus is considered unlikely to run against Kostunica again.

Ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj -- who took a strong third place in the first round and then called for a boycott of the second round -- says he was not surprised by the outcome since, in his view, voters had no real choice.

"Both were candidates of DOS, but not one of them has the trust of the voters. We have to have new presidential elections."

The outcome gives the pro-reform ruling coalition of parties in Serbia, known as DOS, or the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, a temporary reprieve in their power struggle with Kostunica, especially Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

Cedomir Jovanovic is the DOS's whip in the Serbian parliament.

"The fact that a president of the republic was not elected is not a tragedy for Serbia. Tomorrow is another day. We'll talk with Kostunica and with the federal government. Things will develop normally. We expect that new elections will be announced in the course of the coming week."

But Jovanovic says those who put DOS in power two years ago are unable to agree on who should be president. He suggests a new widely acceptable candidate should be found "to attract votes from both sides." But he says that candidate should not be Kostunica, whom he describes as being "in full opposition to Labus at present and whose program is unacceptable" for the DOS, "as it is solely based on conflict with the republic government."

The speaker of the Yugoslav federal parliament, Dragoljub Micunovic, suggests the need to hold presidential elections in Serbia once again could delay the establishment of a new loose common state with Montenegro.

Micunovic interprets the vote for Kostunica as a rejection of Djindjic's justification for having expelled all 45 deputies from Kostunica's party and replaced them with members of other DOS parties. Djindjic cited the parliamentarians repeated boycotts of votes on reform bills. Micunovic says, "The mandates must be given back [to Kostunica's party]. Talks must be opened to discuss what's next. It would be good for us to be more rational, to discuss how parliament functions now because if parliament won't function, we won't be able to enact the constitutional charter [replacing Yugoslavia with Serbia-Montenegro]."

Another DOS member, Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic, expressed disappointment with the failure to elect a president. He says Serbia now faces a choice.

"Now what's left is either to elect a president in a new round of elections in accordance with the law and the constitution within a short period of time, or else, what I would prefer, reach a political agreement that we change the election law's reference to voter participation in the second round and enable new presidential elections within a few months. Or else we should make a big political agreement which would lead to the [enactment] of a new constitution for Serbia, as well as a new parliament and president. But that would take six months to a year."

Belgrade political analyst Vladimir Goati notes the low turnout in the first round was particularly marked among young people.

"There was already a very low turnout in the first round and, according to incomplete data I have, a very small number of young people participated in the elections. This has to be verified and carefully investigated. Already in the first round this had a distributive effect because one candidate -- I mean Mr. Labus -- was put at a disadvantage by being the puppet of a portion of the voters -- young, educated, urban people who are not afraid of the risks of reform. They, in turn, participated in very low numbers."

Goati says a negative campaign was a key cause of the low turnout in the first round and that the situation only worsened in the second round. He says many voters may not have been satisfied with what the candidates were offering them -- fewer empty promises of rapid improvement, a sharp contrast to two years ago.

Marko Blagojevic of the Belgrade-based Center for Free Elections and Democracy says the law is unclear on calling new elections. "All that the law says is that in the event that the elections don't succeed, new elections have to be held," he says. "But the law does not say exactly when they have to be held."

Even the big losers in the first two rounds of voting -- particularly Labus and Seselj -- are eligible to run again in new elections, if they so desire.

Blagojevic says regardless of the situation, the days are numbered for the outgoing president of Serbia, Milan Milutinovic, whom the UN tribunal in The Hague has indicted for war crimes.