Serbian elections on brink of collapse

Serbian presidential elections were on the brink of collapse for the third time in a year as few voters turned out today to choose between a pro-democracy veteran and a strident nationalist.

Serbian presidential elections were on the brink of collapse for the third time in a year as few voters turned out today to choose between a pro-democracy veteran and a strident nationalist.

Amid widespread voter apathy caused by the lack of real economic benefits after former President Slobodan Milosevic’s ouster in 2000, the last two elections foundered as turnout was below the 50% minimum.

Early exit polls indicated that three hours before the polls closed today, turnout had reached 30%, 2 percentage points less than at the same time in the previous, failed attempt to elect a president.

Stefan Gredelj, an independent election analyst monitoring the vote, predicted that the turnout would reach around 40-45%, which would lead to another failure.

That would leave just the acting government in charge, as parliament was dissolved last week because the pro-Western government lost parliamentary support. Early general elections are set for December 28.

“Without a president, we will have an institutional chaos,” Gredelj said, adding that the low turnout is the result of voter’s disillusionment with the country’s leadership.

“The politicians are getting what they deserve,” he said.

The vote was considered a major test for Serbia’s pro-Western leadership, which ousted Milosevic in October 2000 and a year later sent him to the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands.

Another failed vote would further deepen political crisis in Serbia, where labour protests are on the rise and people are generally dissatisfied with their living standards after a decade of wars and economic decay.

With no parliament, there would be no one to call a new presidential vote - that task falls to the parliament speaker.

Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic tried to calm down fears about a power vacuum in case of failure.

“People should not fear,” Zivkovic said. “The government is capable of securing stability and normal life until a new parliament is chosen.”

Dragoljub Micunovic, 73, a pro-government politician and university professor with strong democratic credentials, was leading pre-election polls against five other candidates.

Micunovic promises included further democratic reforms, closer ties with the West and stability based on economic progress.

His main rival, Tomislav Nikolic, an ultranationalist with ties to Milosevic, is banking that disillusionment with the democracy and the West will help his cause.

“For a long there’s been no patriotic leader of the republic,” Nikolic, 51, said. “That’s why Serbia is in decay.”

Nikolic, of the pro-Milosevic Serbian Radical party, played the card of national pride. He has pledged to have no more extraditions of Serbs to the UN tribunal to answer charges of war crimes committed during last decade’s Balkan wars fomented by Milosevic.

Among those trickling through to Belgrade’s central polling station on a sunny but chilly day was Darinka Timotijevic, 66, who considered it her duty to vote despite widespread feeling that the elections would fail.

“I didn’t bother to vote the last two times,” the retired teacher said. “But it really is a shame for the state and all of us to not have a president.”

Serbia and the much smaller republic of Montenegro form Serbia-Montenegro, the country that replaced Yugoslavia after it broke apart following a decade of Balkan wars in the 1990s.

There are no more armed conflicts in the region, but the threat of instability remains amid the social and political crises.

In March, Serbia’s first post-Milosevic prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, the republic’s first democratic leader since World War II, was assassinated, allegedly by crime bosses and Milosevic-era paramilitary commanders and crime bosses.

The post of president has been vacant since a Milosevic ally, Milan Milutinovic, stepped down to join his former backer in The Hague to answer charges before a UN court for alleged war crimes related to the Balkan conflicts.

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