Milosevic benefits from Serbian apathy at the polling booths

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The Independent Online
Serbians voted to elect a president yesterday, for the second time in three months. But widespread apathy suggested little prospect of reaching the 50 per cent turnout needed to validate the results. Andrew Gumbel in Belgrade reports on an impasse that can only benefit Slobodan Milosevic.

Everybody knew this was going to be a lacklustre campaign. But last Tuesday the whole country was made to realise what pathetic, puerile stuff its prospective future leaders were made of. Vojislav Seselj, the frontrunner in September's inconclusive poll and a notorious hardline nationalist, held a live television debate with one of his biggest rivals, the erstwhile anti-Milosevic campaigner Vuk Draskovic.

At first Mr Seselj, who has a track record of making verbal and physical threats on the small screen, surprised everyone by playing the mature politician, doing his best to sound sweetly reasonable about the depressed economy, the backlog of unpaid pensions and state salaries, and the thorny political question of autonomy for the Albanian-majority province of Kosovo.

But then Mr Draskovic accused Mr Seselj of being a bad Serb with a suspiciously high proportion of Croatian blood. Mr Seselj looked flustered at first, then threw the same accusation back in Mr Draskovic's face. Since the two men have close family ties, the insults soon became downright personal. What was supposed to be a debate about the country's future turned into a racist slanging match.

The truth is, both men are a severe embarrassment - Mr Seselj because of his rabid political opinions and his tendency to have his opponents beaten up, Mr Draskovic because his claim to represent the democratic opposition that spent last winter marching against the Milosevic regime looks more tenuous every day. Most of the moderates in his party have walked out on him. The rest of the pro-democracy movement are boycotting the election.

That leaves just one other leading contender, the Yugoslav Foreign Minister Milan Milutinovic, who is a Milosevic man through and through. But he is also endlessly bland, a poor campaigner and a man with a past as a scourge of anti- establishment intellectuals under Tito.

The most likely scenario is another inquorate election, and another round of voting next spring. Without a president, Serbia cannot form a government. The power vacuum leaves just one man with a real job, Mr Milosevic. Although his post as Yugoslav federal president is largely honorary, no one is in a position to challenge his supremacy.