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Serbian Vote Invalidated by Low Turnout

The winner may be nationalist Seselj, who didn't make it onto second-round ballot but may be included in the new election.

October 14, 2002|Alissa J. Rubin and Zoran Cirjakovic | Special to The Times

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — BELGRADE, Yugoslavia--Apathy and fears of the Western-style reforms promised by both candidates apparently succeeded in defeating the electoral process in Serbia on Sunday, raising doubts about the stability of Yugoslavia's political institutions.

Too few voters went to the polls for the presidential election to be valid under the law in Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic. The statute requires that more than 50% of registered voters cast ballots, but according to unofficial results from watchdog groups and political parties, the turnout was only 45%.

In many ways, the winner was a man whose name was not on the ballot.

Vojislav Seselj -- a crony of ousted Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and an extreme nationalist who came in third Sept. 29 in the first round of the election -- had called on his supporters to shun the polls in Sunday's runoff. It seems that enough of them listened to invalidate the runoff's results, forcing a completely new cycle of voting.

Few people doubt that Seselj will compete in the next elections, which Serbian officials said Sunday will be called for the end of November. Most think he will do better than the first time, possibly ending up in the next runoff.

"What is obvious is that Serbia gave Seselj a chance to try again," Mladjan Dinkic, the governor of the Serbian National Bank, the equivalent of the United States' Federal Reserve, said as Sunday's results came in.

"The failure of the election will blow the wind in Seselj's back," said Bratislav Grubacic, a political analyst in Belgrade, capital of both Serbia and what remains of the Yugoslav federation. "Now he may become a serious player."

Sunday's election was a runoff between the two highest vote-getters in the first round: Vojislav Kostunica, the current Yugoslav president, who succeeded Milosevic, and Miroljub Labus, a Communist-era economics professor who is now Yugoslavia's deputy prime minister.

For Yugoslav elected officials to have meaningful roles, they must move into the Serbian government because the rump Yugoslav federation, made up of Serbia and Montenegro, is on the verge of becoming a far less powerful entity. An agreement slated to go into effect in the next few months will loosen the ties between Serbia and Montenegro, making the Yugoslav government largely ceremonial.

The lack of a new president and uncertainty about whether the next round of elections will succeed will almost certainly slow down economic reforms and, as a result, Western investment. Kostunica has repeatedly said that failure to elect a president would inflict "instability, tensions and chaos" on the republic and jeopardize unfinished reforms.

Both Kostunica and Labus had promised to support reforms advocated by the international community, including privatization of state- owned companies, the phasing out of an array of state subsidies and aligning the country closer with Europe.

Labus is close to Serbia's reform-oriented prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, and Kostunica, although inclined to take a slower approach, also backs moving the country toward Europe. A constitutional lawyer by training, he has been more focused on judicial reforms.

Of the roughly 3 million votes cast Sunday, Kostunica won 66% and Labus 31%.

However, neither candidate's platform inspired many Serbs, who had high hopes that the post-Milosevic era would bring changes that would improve their lives.

Instead, a number of people are suffering in the wake of economic reforms that have left some without jobs and created pervasive insecurity, since privatization means many more firms will have to slash their payrolls. Unemployment already stands at 40%, the government says.

Although the salaries of those with jobs have increased, they have not kept up with inflation in the prices for previously subsidized goods, including sugar, bread and cooking oil. Heat is another crucial item that is expected to increase in price by 50% in the coming winter, according to a government announcement.

"Lots of people are very tired of politics," said Emina Cano Tomic, 35, a mother of two and a Labus supporter. "Our expectations were very big two years ago, and slowly, from month to month, we are finding not many things improved. Some things are even worse, and it makes people give up on politics."

For his part, Seselj ran primarily on an anti-reform ticket, promising more security to people and pledging to eradicate corruption--a dig at Djindjic and by extension Labus. Djindjic is widely viewed in Serbia as having links to organized crime.

The term of the current Serbian president, Milan Milutinovic, expires in early January. Milutinovic, a former Milosevic ally, is under indictment by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague, where Milosevic is on trial, but there was a tacit agreement that he would not be extradited while he was in office.

*

Times staff writer Rubin reported from Vienna and special correspondent Cirjakovic from Belgrade.

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