Ultra-nationalists take lead at Serbian polls

Serbian ultra-nationalist Radicals won most votes in Serbia’s parliamentary election, but several pro-democratic groups won enough seats to form a new government if they can settle their differences.

Serbian ultra-nationalist Radicals won most votes in Serbia’s parliamentary election, but several pro-democratic groups won enough seats to form a new government if they can settle their differences.

The Radicals, who ruled Serbia with Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, gathered about 29% of yesterday’s vote, followed by the pro-Western Democratic Party with 23 percent and the ruling centre-right Popular Coalition with 17%, said CESID, an independent polling group, citing its own vote count at Serbian polling stations.

The state electoral commission released similar results, but with a smaller percentage of the vote counted. Turnout was 62%, the commission said, showing there was strong interest among the 6.6 million strong electorate.

The results meant that Serbia’s bickering pro-democratic parties could form a new government if they agree who will be the next prime minister. Current premier Vojislav Kostunica, whose coalition was third in the polls, insists on retaining the post.

The Democrats of Serbian President Boris Tadic, who were second after the Radicals, want to have their own prime minister.

The post of the future prime minister should go to the Democrats, Tadic said, describing his party as “the new leader of the democracy bloc” in Serbia’s new parliament.

“There will be huge problems in forming the new government,” said Dragoljub Zarkovic, columnist of liberal Vreme weekly.

Radical leader Tomislav Nikolic acknowledged that the ultra-nationalists will not be able to form the new government.

“The Serbian Radical Party is the winner … but we will not have the opportunity to form the government,” he said.

“Despite running against the parties led by the prime minister and the president and their vicious campaigns against us, we proved our strength,” Nikolic said.

The Democrats were the biggest winners in the election, doubling the number of their seats in Serbia's 250-seat parliament to 65 when compared to the previous vote in 2003. The Radicals will retain about the same, 81 seats, while Kostunica’s ruling coalition will have 47 seats, about 10 less than in the previous parliament.

A newly formed Liberal coalition, led by Cedomir Jovanovic, who negotiated Milosevic’s surrender and arrest in 2001, surprisingly entered the parliament by winning 14 seats, according to the preliminary vote results.

Kostunica was noncommittal after the vote on whether he would step down and allow a Democratic prime minister to take his place.

“The question who is going with whom is inappropriate at this moment,” Kostunica said. “The president (Tadic) will have to find a man who will be able to get a majority” in the parliament.

The vote was the first since the breakup of Serbia’s union last year with Montenegro, its last partner from the former Yugoslavia that split up in wartime campaigns conducted under late Serbian President Milosevic in the 1990s.

Shortly after the vote, a UN plan for the future of Serbia’s breakaway Kosovo province is expected to be published. The West had fears that if the ultranationalist Radicals, who ruled Serbia together with Milosevic, emerged as outright winners, Europe could face another major crisis if Kosovo is given independence, as expected.

Tadic and Kostunica have lobbied internationally to keep Kosovo within Serbia’s border, offering broad autonomy to its majority ethnic Albanians who are seeking nothing but full independence. Unlike the Radicals, the two have pledged to resolve the Kosovo crisis by peaceful means.

The vote results indicate that any Serbian acceptance of a UN Kosovo plan will be difficult and will likely be delayed until a new government is formed.

Kosovo has been an international protectorate since the 1998-99 war between Milosevic’s troops and separatist ethnic Albanians. UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari is expected to present a proposal for Kosovo’s future to diplomats on Friday which many believe will include some sort of conditional independence.

Kostunica’s government has pursued Western-advised reforms and has sought closer relations with the European Union. But, it has failed to arrest fugitive Gen. Ratko Mladic, sought by the UN war crimes court in The Hague, Netherlands.

Tadic has pledged that if his Democrats lead Serbia’s new government, it will work harder than Kostunica’s conservatives to arrest the Bosnian Serb wartime army commander, who has been indicted by the tribunal for a massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslims during the 1992-95 war there.

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