'All we want is for the people's will to prevail'

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The Independent Online

Serbs have long waited for this moment. Yesterday, at last, they could all agree on one thing: Serbia is on the move. It may end bloodily, though the first indications were that last night's giant opposition rally might end peacefully. But, bloodily or not, huge change is on the way.

Serbs have long waited for this moment. Yesterday, at last, they could all agree on one thing: Serbia is on the move. It may end bloodily, though the first indications were that last night's giant opposition rally might end peacefully. But, bloodily or not, huge change is on the way.

Yesterday, with 98.7 per cent of the vote counted, the opposition led by Vojislav Kostunica claimed an absolute majority of 52.5 per cent of the vote in Sunday's elections, against Slobodan Milosevic's 35 per cent.

The government's reasons for optimism are few. The opposition feels so strong they can afford to sound almost gracious. Vladislav Jankovic, Mr Kostunica's deputy, said yesterday: "All we want is for the will of the people to prevail.

"We need only to keep calm - and wait for the pressure from inside and outside. The highest echelons of the regime are in despair - and probably more dangerous. But most [in the regime] realise they have to go on working and living here."

Mr Jankovic compared the success of the opposition, which has been split for so many years, to historical naval strategy. "You can turn your ship sideways to fire all cannons at the same time - a broadside, you call it. It took us 10 years to do that. Now, we have achieved our broadside - and we have our Nelson, too." The Belgrade regime is still wondering how to deal with Serbia's new Nelson. The electoral commission is obliged by law to give its final verdict on the count by this evening, 96 hours after the close of polls.

Since everybody knows politics, not mathematics, govern the commission's deliberations, the real question is whether the size of last night's rally, the opposition's unprecedented unity, and the growing cracks in the regime are enough to force a historic climbdown.

The regime acknowledged Mr Kostunica is ahead, but spokesmen have been keen to muddy the waters by saying a run-off is needed; the electoral commission declared on Tuesday night that this was necessary on the basis of "prelim- inary results" of 48 per cent for Mr Kostunica and 40 per cent for Mr Milosevic.

Politika, the government daily, confidently declared: "The left bloc to form federal government, there will be a second round of presidential elections." The headline in the daily Blic was equally blunt: "There will be no second round."

The opposition says accepting a run-off would be a fraud on almost the same scale as allowing a Milosevic victory. Zarko Korac, one of the main opposition leaders, said: "In a second round, Milosevic would do what he hasn't done in the first round: destroy ballot boxes, put blank ballots in the boxes, cancel the elections, declare a third or a fourth round. People would get tired and lose patience. That is Milosevic's way."

One problem for the government is that, because of its electoral hubris, the regime allowed the results to be verified at every stage. Each polling station produced multiple copies of agreed voting figures, signed and countersigned by Milosevic loyalists and the opposition. These figures will prove tricky to undo.

The opposition yesterday pressed for a meeting with the electoral commission to explain the discrepancy between the opposition and official lists. (Everybody knows the answer, of course: fraud, commissioned from above.) The commission failed to respond. But, despite what may come, there is an excitement in the air. In past years, everybody was cautious. Pessimists always outnumbered the optimists. But as the scale of the victory is confirmed, people started to believe the end is near. "He's finished. Of course he is," a grocery store owner cheerfully told me in central Belgrade, as his customers grinned.

This excitement is new to a tired and resentful city. As Zarko Korac, leader of the opposition Social Democrats, says people realise they are stronger than they thought.

The regime uses even trivial ways to block the opposition. The authorities ordered the dismantling of a podium for last night's rally outside the federal parliament, claiming the noise might disturb the deliberations of the election commission.

The possibilities of collapse are many, and endlessly discussed. One possibility is that the SNP, the pro-Milosevic party in Montenegro - often been less extreme than Mr Milosevic's own Socialist Party - might join forces with the Serb opposition, thus making Milosevic supporters a minority in the parliament and removing his remaining powerbase.

In Poland in 1989, the defection of a previously loyal puppet party made possible the unthinkable. The elections had been rigged to stop the opposition taking power; the defection allowed a non-Communist government to be formed, to the fury of the regime. That victory paved the way for the collapse of Communism through the region.

In Yugoslavia, the defection of the SNP could cause an equally remarkable earthquake. When a ship is sinking, nobody is bothered about how to save the hated captain's life.

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