Defeated Panic says poll was rigged

THE DEFEATED Serbian presidental challenger, Milan Panic, yesterday denounced the landslide electoral victory of the nationalist incumbent, Slobodan Milosevic, as a fraud.

Mr Panic announced he was staying on in Serbia to remain at the helm of parties opposed to Mr Milosevic's government. 'I am not accepting the results,' he said. 'They were so full of irregularities that in any legal state they would be annulled.' He demanded fresh elections in 90 days, 'or at the latest by May next year'.

Mr Panic apeared to have recovered from the initial shock following the first results, which awarded Mr Milosevic a convincing victory in the contest for the Serbian presidency, and which suggested the ruling Socialists will remain the largest party in the Serbian parliament.

In relaxed and combative mood, Mr Panic dismissed talk of packing his bags and returning to the United States, where he made a fortune in the pharmaceuticals business before returning earlier this year to take up the largely symbolic post of Yugoslav Prime Minister.

He said he planned to provide leadership for the country's disunited opposition parties. 'I am going to work within the system,' he added. But he left open the question of whether he wished to retain his current post, as federal Prime Minister. 'What's the good of remaining Prime Minister if you have not got any power?' he asked.

During the past few months, Mr Panic's influence on events practically evaporated, as Serbia's ruling Socialists joined forces in parliament with the ultra-nationalist Radical Party to try to remove him from office. The new federal parliament, expected to be dominated by Socialists and Radicals, is likely to sack him soon after it meets.

While Mr Panic spoke, Vuk Draskovic, one of the leaders of Depos, the largest opposition coalition, said his supporters recognised Mr Panic as the real president of Serbia. 'The election was rigged to the last detail,' he said. 'It cannot be accepted and will not be accepted by any democrat in Serbia. As far as democratic Serbia is concerned, Panic is president.'

Mr Draskovic went on to accuse the ruling Socialists of carrying out a number of dirty tricks. He said that they had confiscated ballot boxes and substituted new ones on the night after the election. Addressing the biggest shock in the results - the huge showing for the Radical Party, led by Vojislav Seselj - he said: 'For a fascist party in Serbia to get six times as many votes as a similar party got in Croatia is the biggest scandal of all, for Serbia and for its traditions'.

The latest, incomplete, results awarded Mr Milosevic 56 per cent of the votes and Mr Panic only 35 per cent.

Alongside what looks like a landslide in the presidential race, the Socialists, led by Mr Milosevic, are on course to remain the largest party in Serbia's parliament.

The Radical Party, which backs Mr Milosevic, may emerge as the second-largest party in the parliament, confirming evidence of a drastic swing in the electorate towards extreme nationalism.

The aggressive stance adopted by Mr Draskovic towards the election results made it clear that Serbia is headed for more internal confrontation and instability in the new year.

Instead of clearing up, once and for all, who is in charge of the country, the election and the accusations of fraud that surrounded the vote have only sharpened tension between the government and its opponents.

The biggest immediate uncertainty concerns the future of the Yugoslav President, Dobrica Cosic. An old-time nationalist who wields considerable influence among ordinary Serbs, Mr Cosic threatened to resign if a more flexible and democratic regime did not replace Mr Milosevic after the elections.

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