BELGRADE, Serbia and Montenegro — The Serbian government made a hard turn to the right in parliamentary elections Sunday as voters strongly endorsed an ultranationalist party led by a war crimes indictee now jailed in The Hague.
Analysts said the first-place finish of Vojislav Seselj's Serbian Radical Party, which won 28% of the seats in parliament, according to preliminary results, was due to voters' frustration with the previous government's perceived corruption and failure to create jobs. Slobodan Milosevic's Socialists also garnered some support, taking at least 7% of the vote.
Despite the ultranationalists' performance, it appeared that they would be unable to form a government and that moderate, pro-Western parties would instead assemble a ruling coalition with the aid of two parties seeking to bring back the monarchy.
But the strong showing of the ultranationalists forced representatives of more moderate parties to say that the new government coalition would give some deference to their views.
"We will have to take these parties into account.... We have to pay attention to the dissatisfaction with the way the country was led," said Ksenija Milivojevic, a representative of G-17 Plus, a group of economists that recently formed a political party and is expected to be part of the new ruling coalition. "We must take care, or this trend will escalate in the next elections."
Even before it was formed, the new government's stability was in doubt. Experts said that its expected members would almost certainly have widely divergent views on key issues such as privatizing state-run enterprises, the future of the province of Kosovo and whether accused war criminals should be handed over to the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
"I expect we'll see another government elected in six to 12 months," said Bratislav Grubacic, a political analyst in Belgrade, the capital.
The outcome of Sunday's vote was testimony to the deep disappointment with the current economic and social situation in Serbia, where the gross domestic product shrank this year and is expected to make little headway in 2004.
"It was a huge failure by the last government that it did not succeed in improving the economy.... People hope that the Radicals will provide job stability," said Miroslav Prokopijevic, an economic and political analyst in Belgrade.
Harder to assess was the effect of the ongoing war crimes trials in The Hague on the elections. At the least, they seemed to have enhanced the profile of figures such as Milosevic and Seselj, whom many outside Serbia regard as pariahs.
Seselj is accused of rallying a paramilitary force that allegedly committed crimes against humanity between 1991 and 1993 in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Milosevic is facing more than 60 counts, including crimes against humanity and genocide, in the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
But among Serbs, the Milosevic trial in particular has had unintended effects, engendering pride in the former leader for his defiance of Western powers and the trial prosecutors.
There is a strong sense among Serbs that the West -- and the United States in particular -- disapproves of their nation's political choices. They feel outraged the country should have to kowtow to outsiders.
"People always object to Serbs. Even if the Serbian people vote for the Radicals, the West should not trample on us," said Ljiljana Djuric, a housewife in the Belgrade suburb of Zaman. "They should respect the will of our nation."
The campaign itself was a wild ride in which Milosevic and Seselj campaigned for seats in parliament from their Hague prison cells, giving interviews over the phone and directing the campaigns of their respective political parties. Two other indicted war criminals, who have not yet gone to The Hague, were also on the ballot.
Seselj even defied a ban on phone interviews last week to make a final rousing speech to his Radical Party followers -- a ploy that seems to have worked, as more than 1 million Serbs came out to vote for him.
The main appeal of the ultranationalist parties, and Seselj's in particular, was the promise of more jobs, lower prices and a halt to the privatization of government-owned companies, a process many Serbs associate with job loss.
Running on the slogan "Radically Better," the party reached out to the large swath of disenfranchised middle-aged voters who have lost jobs as Serbia shudders toward a more market-driven economic system.
The Radicals' platform decried the former government as a corrupt group of thieves and called on those "who have been humiliated, insulted, who have lost your jobs" to vote for Seselj's party. His party also ran against the Hague tribunal and the Western community, which has threatened to cut off economic aid unless Serbia complies with the court's demands.
Despite the campaign promises, there seemed little hope to spare on voting day in the Serbian heartland. At one polling place outside Belgrade, every person interviewed Sunday said they had low expectations regardless of which party won.
"I don't think much will change, and everything has to change," said Ilija Tasic, 19, a dental student who cast his ballot for a pro-monarchy coalition. "The current government did not manage to start the economy at all."