Serbs vote themselves to edge of a nightmare

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The Independent Online
Serbia plunged further yesterday into political chaos, as preliminary results show that an extreme nationalist defeated his pro-government opponent in elections on Sunday. In Montenegro, the smaller Yugoslav republic, there was potentially better news. Steve Crawshaw reports. Vojislav Seselj, a vocal advocate of "Greater Serbia", exploited widespread disillusion with the regime, on the one hand, and with the splits in the democratic opposition, on the other, and looked set to finish several percentage points ahead of Zoran Lilic, the somewhat wooden candidate who was supported by Slobodan Milosevic and his ruling coalition.

The potential nightmare of a Serbia run by President Seselj is not yet certain to become real. The turnout was below the 50 per cent required to make the vote valid, partly because of apathy and partly because so many Serbs could not bring themselves to make such a hideous choice.

None the less, for those who are wary of Mr Seselj's growing power, there is little good news in the re-run of the election. Serbia may try to change the constitutional rules to prevent a repetition of yesterday's debacle, by doing away with the 50 per cent hurdle. If, or when, a second election takes place, Mr Seselj will probably do as well or better. Conversations in different parts of the country in recent days made it clear that he has support from a ragbag collection of voters. Their disillusion with the current situation is sometimes the only thing that they share in common.

The democratic opposition, which led giant demonstrations against the regime last winter, has long since disintegrated amid bitter recriminations. They now spend more time attacking each other than attacking Mr Milosevic.

The Serbian ice now seems to be breaking. But the movement in the ice- floes is lethally unpredictable. President Milosevic (no longer Serbian president, but president of Yugoslavia), might come up with a new manoeuvre in order to re-establish full control, as he has done so many times before; Mr Seselj may become the new boss of Serbia, unleashing a new hardline policy which would probably lead to greater violence in, for example, the Albanian- majority province of Kosovo; or - though it seems implausible, from today's standpoint - assorted democrats might suddenly find renewed unity.

When Serb democrats are asked for good news, they generally point to the little republic of Montenegro, the only one of five republics in the former Yugoslavia which has not decided to cut loose from Belgrade. The reformist prime minister, Milo Djukanovic, came ahead of Mr Milosevic's favourite, Momir Bulatovic, in the first round of presidential elections in Montenegro on Sunday. If Mr Djukanovic goes on to become president, his new-look policies will severely embarrass the Serbian regime, by showing that it is possible for a political monolith to be broken up.