Milosevic faces heavy defeat in 'referendum' on his presidency

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The Independent Online

For the first time in more than 10 years, Slobodan Milosevic, Yugoslavia's strongman, faces a serious challenge from an opposition candidate who has grabbed a convincing lead ahead of presidential elections due on 24 September.

For the first time in more than 10 years, Slobodan Milosevic, Yugoslavia's strongman, faces a serious challenge from an opposition candidate who has grabbed a convincing lead ahead of presidential elections due on 24 September.

Vojislav Kostunica, the candidate of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), calls his campaign "a referendum against Milosevic". He told supporters at a recent rally: "It's high time to return to normal life after more than a decade of destruction."

So far, the campaign is going in his favour, even though he is not the only opposition candidate standing against President Milosevic. The others are Vojislav Mihailovic, put forward by the Serbian Renewal Movement led by Vuk Draskovic, and Tomislav Nikolic, standing for the Serbian Radical Party.

Two separate opinion polls in Serbia issued at the end of last month showed Mr Kostunica would win 43 per cent of the vote, compared with between 21 and 24 per cent for Mr Milosevic. The popular support of the other opposition candidates is in single figures.

Most analysts are not surprised by the popularity of Mr Kostunica, 56, a constitutional lawyer. Besides being fed up with Mr Milosevic's politics of defiance and isolation, Serbs are sick of vain, insincere opposition leaders such as Mr Draskovic and Zoran Djindjic of the Democratic Opposition. For many, Mr Kostunica seems the right choice.

He lost his job as a university professor of law in 1974 and later worked as a researcher. He has headed the small, moderate, nationalist Democratic Party of Serbia for years.

Mr Kostunica sharply criticised last year's Nato air raids against Serbia from the legal point of view, but also blamed Mr Milosevic for pushing the country into the unnecessary destruction.

Now, he says, "it is important to realise that Serbia can not go further without Europe. We are a part of Europe and Europe has to realise that it needs Serbia." For many, Mr Kostunica is everything that many opposition politicians are not. That is why his campaign slogan is: "Who can look you straight into eyes? Kostunica."

He never took part in any of Mr Milosevic's governments, never met him and was never a member of Communist Party. Serbs seem not to mind his serious face or the fact that he has no children.

They also like the fact that, unlike many corruptible opposition politicians or "new rich" around Mr Milosevic, Mr Kostunica has modest pretensions. "If I become president, I'll remain in Dorcol where I spent my whole life," he promised. Dorcol is a downtown Belgrade neighbourhood. Mr Milosevic lived in a luxurious residence in the Dedinje suburb until it was destroyed by Nato rockets.

"I'll try to change our country into a better one, in accordance with the laws of God and man, and I will not allow the power to change me," Mr Kostunica said at the start of his campaign, which has attracted large crowds as he makes his way from door to door through provincial Serbia.

Mila Janjic, 43, a housewife who attended a Kostunica rally in the northern province of Vojvodina, said: "His hands are not dirty and have no blood on them. Unlike others, he has not stolen or killed in our name."

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