Hard men and fascists triumph in Serbian vote

Slobodan Milosevic, the great survivor of Serbian politics, again proved yesterday that "defeat" is not a phrase that fits easily into his political vocabulary. Preliminary results from parliamentary and presidential elections suggested severe losses for the democrats, who only eight months ago were both strong and united. Steve Crawshaw says the biggest gainer in the elections was the ultra-nationalist opposition candidate.
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Mr Milosevic's favoured candidate to be Serbian president looked set to gain around 35 per cent of the vote; the candidate of the far right, Vojislav Seselj, came second with about 30 per cent; Vuk Draskovic, one of a troika of leaders who spearheaded opposition demonstrations earlier this year, came third, with about 20 per cent. Opposition parties which had called for a boycott of the polls were disappointed that voters failed to respond in sufficient numbers. The turnout was around 60 per cent, comfortably over the 50 per cent minimum.

Mr Milosevic, who served the maximum two terms as Serbian president, has stayed at the top by moving recently to become the leader of Yugoslavia (which now consists of Serbia and the little republic of Montenegro). His predecessor as Yugoslav leader, Zoran Lilic, looks set to take over from his political master as Serbian president. He will face Mr Seselj, of the Serb Radical Party, in a run-off on 5 October. For supporters of the moderate opposition, the choice is depressing - between Mr Lilic, widely regarded as a Milosevic puppet, on the one hand, and the aggressive Mr Seselj, on the other. Mr Lilic is likely to be regarded by many as the lesser evil; but the chances of an increased boycott seem high. If less than 50 per cent of eligible voters cast their vote in the second round, then the presidential election will have to be held a second time.

In December and January, huge street demonstrations forced government retreats. Since then, however, the opposition has fallen into disarray. Zoran Djindjic, mayor of Belgrade and leader of the opposition Democratic Party, led calls for an electoral boycott. But the contradictory signals ("vote!", "don't vote!") from the opposition disoriented many voters. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which sent election observers, blamed the government for the "climate of mistrust" which surrounded the election process, including doubts over the printing of ballot sheets. The OSCE talked of "serious concerns" about the electoral process - but also insisted publicly that the boycott had been misguided.

In the parliamentary elections, it seems that the existing government coalition will need new allies in order to form a government. Mr Seselj's Radical Party came second. But there has been widespread speculation in recent weeks that Mr Milosevic has struck a secret deal with Mr Draskovic. According to one popular theory, the breakaway member of the opposition troika could receive a position in the new government, in return for a promise of partial loyalty to Mr Milosevic.

Western observers agreed that an important flaw in the electoral process included highly distorted television coverage. The OSCE referred to a report produced by the European Institute for the Media, whose monitoring mission analysed Serbian media coverage in quantified detail. In particular, the institute argued that election coverage on state television - the only television which people in many parts of Serbia can see, because of government restrictions on independent broadcasting - was "fundamentally flawed".