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Turnout May Derail Serbia Election

October 13, 2002

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BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Amid drizzle and dark gray skies, voters showed little interest Sunday in the first Serbian presidential election since the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic, threatening to push turnout below a legal minimum and invalidate the entire effort.

Voters chose between Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, a former law professor and Communist-era dissident, and Miroljub Labus, a mild-mannered economic expert who is Yugoslavia’s vice prime minister in charge of financial affairs.

But widespread voter apathy _ triggered by the slow pace of reforms, quarreling between pro-democracy leaders who ousted Milosevic and low living standards _ led to concern that turnout for the second round election runoff would fall below the legal limit of 50 percent.

The Center for Free Elections and Democracy, an independent group of observers, said turnout was about 21 percent by early afternoon, six hours before polls were scheduled to close.

``If this trend continues, these elections will not succeed,″ said Zoran Lucic, a spokesman for the group. If the elections fail, the whole process would be repeated within three months.

Just hours before the polls were to close, the Serbian Orthodox Church’s influential patriarch, Pavle, issued a dramatic televised appeal for Serbs to vote.

Pavle said in a statement that the church was ``seriously worried″ that a failure of the vote ``could cause a significant deterioration of the political situation and upset the functioning of the state and its international relations.″

As he voted in Belgrade, Labus, a pro-Western technocrat, said he ``did everything to persuade voters to vote for a modern, pro-European Serbia _ now it’s their turn to do so.″

Kostunica, a moderate nationalist, finished first in the first round on Sept. 29, but failed to get a majority needed for outright victory. Kostunica succeeded Milosevic as Yugoslavia’s president, who was ousted in October 2000.

Turnout was 55 percent in the first round, but Milosevic’s allies _ including ultranationalist leader Vojislav Seselj _ who failed to make it to the runoff urged their supporters to boycott the vote. Seselj, who was supported by Milosevic from his prison cell at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in the Netherlands, could get another chance at the presidency if the elections are repeated.

In 1997, a vote for the Serbian presidency failed because of low turnout. A new round of voting the same year led to the election of Milan Milutinovic, the current Serbian president and a former Milosevic ally. Milutinovic _ who kept a low profile after Milosevic’s ouster _ is also wanted by the U.N. war crimes tribunal.

Kostunica on Sunday criticized the Milosevic-era election law that requires large turnouts and two rounds of voting, calling it ``irrational.″

Kostunica has repeatedly said that a failure to elect the Serbian president would inflict ``instability, tensions and chaos″ on the republic and jeopardize unfinished reforms.

But a lack of sweeping progress after Milosevic’s ouster has weighed heavily on the minds of Serbs.

``Most Serbs are sick and tired of poverty, the squabbling leadership and failed hopes that things would improve quickly after Milosevic,″ said Miroslav Karic, a university student who said he boycotted the vote.

Many Serbs had hoped for a faster improvement in living standards after Milosevic. Average salaries have gone up, but have barely kept pace with soaring prices despite the relative stability of the national currency, the dinar. Unemployment stands at a staggering 40 percent.

Galvanizing voters into action has become a challenge for Kostunica and Labus. Both advocate economic reforms, membership in the European Union and cooperation with the West, but disagree over the best way to achieve those goals.

The most contentious issue between the candidates centers on a power struggle between Kostunica and Labus’ powerful backer, Serbia’s Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

Kostunica and Djindjic have argued almost daily over the pace and style of reforms after they jointly led the rebellion against Milosevic. Kostunica has promised to bring down Djindjic’s government if he wins the presidency.

Kostunica will lose his current job when the post of Yugoslav president disappears later this year. Under an EU-supported plan, a new country is to be formed that turns the republics, Serbia and Montenegro, into a loose union.

Update hourly