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Serbia-Montenegro: Is Belgrade's Failed Presidential Poll A Warning Sign Ahead Of Parliamentary Elections?

Serbia has failed for a third time in just over a year to elect a new president because of low voter turnout. The low turnout, coupled with an unexpectedly strong showing for the ultranationalist candidate, are being viewed as possible warning signs to pro-reform parties ahead of parliamentary elections next month.

Prague, 17 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Two previous attempts by Serbs to elect a new president -- a post which has been vacant since last September -- were declared invalid because voter turnout did not reach the required half of eligible voters. In the third attempt in less than 14 months yesterday, less than 40 percent of the country's 6.5 million voters cast ballots.

The low turnout came as no surprise. Many, however, were shocked by the relatively strong showing of Tomislav Nikolic of the ultranationalist Radical party. The party's leader, Vojislav Seselj, is awaiting trial for alleged war crimes at the international tribunal at The Hague.

Nikolic, one of six candidates, outpolled the candidate of the ruling pro-reform DOS coalition, Dragoljub Micunovic, by some 46 percent to 35 percent. Micunovic had earlier been seen as the frontrunner.

Three years after they ousted former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia's pro-reform parties are in disarray, mired in a war of words and squabbling. Two former DOS allies, the opposition Democratic Party of Serbia of former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and the liberal G-17 party, boycotted the presidential poll insisting instead on an early parliamentary election as a way out of the political crisis.

The DOS coalition finally agreed, on 14 November, to an early general election, just three days before the presidential poll.

The bickering among the pro-reformist parties apparently did nothing to turn out Serbia's voters, who were already disillusioned with the slow pace of reforms.

Serba Brankovic, an analyst from the Gallup-Serbia polling institute, says all those factors played a role in the low turnout. "Among those who abstained, we have in the first place those who support parties that did not take part in the election, who did not consider it necessary to run. Then there are the 'natural' abstainers, people who are not interested in politics and who form around 20 percent of voters. And of course there is the third category, people who are completely resigned to the situation."

Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic, speaking after the vote yesterday, denied that the reformers were losing support in Serbia -- but admitted their conflicting messages had done nothing to motivate voters.

"Serbia needs changes. That is the opinion of many more citizens than those who today gave their votes to professor [Dragoljub Micunovic]. Serbia wants the reforms to continue, but Serbia is confused because those who spearheaded the reforms three years ago now issue different messages, which do not persuade Serbs that all are for continuing reforms -- and I am afraid that is true."

The problem was further aggravated by the fact that the role of the president has recently been marginalized in Serbia. And, according to Zoran Lutovac from the Institute for Social Sciences, too little was done to persuade voters of the importance of the election.

"It is obvious that not enough was done," he says. "It is obvious that some of the voters who are not interested in politics and who exist everywhere in the world did not turn out to vote because they listened to those who were telling them that the election was not important."

Nikolic yesterday touted his significant, albeit futile, win as a victory for what he called "patriotic forces" in Serbia.

It's not clear yet whether Nikolic's relatively strong showing demonstrates a resurgence of ultranationalist forces or was simply an emotional reaction by disillusioned voters to his populist promises. In campaigning, Nikolic accused the pro-reform government of introducing "brutal" capitalism to Serbia and pledged to stop handing over war crimes suspects to the United Nations tribunal in The Hague. He had also threatened that if elected, he would demand Zivkovic's resignation and would call supporters out on the streets if the prime minister refused to step down.

Brankovic of Gallup-Serbia says Nikolic received the votes of many who wanted to punish the government but had no one else to vote for.

"I think many [of those who voted for the Radical party] were DSS supporters who voted against the government, who could not restrain their disillusionment with the government and voted for Mr. Nikolic," he said. "For me, those elections are a strong protest against the government, an expression of people's disillusionment at all that is happening."

Sociologist Zaga Golubovic compares Nikolic's election results with the shock in France when far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen beat the Socialists in the first round of presidential elections last year. Golubovic says Nikolic's results should be seen as a warning to reformers ahead of the general election on 28 December: "This is a very serious warning, I think even more serious than the warning that was sent [by French voters] when in France [Jean-Marie] Le Pen received 17 percent [of the vote] in the first round of the presidential election. It is a very serious warning and I think it also shows how problematic the parliamentary election that is ahead of us [will be]."

Other analysts say Nikolic's success should not be exaggerated. They say the Radicals would lose momentum in the general election because the parties who boycotted the presidential poll will run in the parliamentary election and draw back their supporters.

Prime Minister Zivkovic also sounded upbeat. "I think reforms will [win] and that we will not betray the expectations of young people, of the future generation who want to live in a new, modern, European, and happy Serbia," he said.

Meanwhile Serbia has been plunged into an institutional vacuum, with no president and -- following the dissolution of the assembly ahead of the general election -- no parliament.

Under current electoral law, a presidential election is called by the speaker of parliament within 60 days of a failed poll. Slobodan Vucetic, the president of the Constitutional Court, says calling a new presidential election will not be possible before a new parliament takes over, probably in mid-January.

(RFE/RL's South Slavic Service contributed to this report.)