Opposition shaken as Milosevic takes lead: A surge in rural votes leads Serbia's ruling Socialists to claim electoral victory, strengthening their hand in Geneva peace talks

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The Independent Online
OPPOSITION hopes of ending the six-year reign of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia faded yesterday after the ruling Socialists claimed they had won an absolute majority of seats in the general election.

A good showing by the opposition as the first results came in led some of its leaders to claim victory prematurely. But as the votes from rural districts poured in overnight the champagne stopped flowing in the headquarters of Mr Milosevic's main challenger, the Depos party of Vuk Draskovic.

By dawn it was clear the Socialists would gain at least 115 places in the 250-seat chamber and perhaps enough seats to form a new government without coalition partners.

Despite three years of war, ruinous international sanctions, Weimar-style hyperinflation that saw salaries shrink to the value of two or three Deutschmarks a month, the Socialists scooped about 37 per cent of the vote. The anti-Milosevic Depos won 16 per cent, the Democrats 11 per cent and the ultra-nationalist Radicals 13 per cent.

Mr Milosevic's stunned challengers raised the traditional charge of electoral fraud and blamed the saturation coverage of Mr Milosevic's supporters by the country's mighty state television. Independent television networks which give more space to the opposition cover only Belgrade.

'There is no rational explanation for this,' lamented Mr Draskovic. 'People believe in the television and their thinking has been disturbed. They believe that there is a plot against Serbs and that there is only one man in the world with no guilt,' he said.

The complaints had no effect on the triumphant mood in the Socialist's headquarters, based in a forbidding Belgrade tower block that once housed the central committee of the old Yugoslav Communist Party. 'I am a very happy man - nobody thought we could do it,' gushed Zeljko Simic, a Socialist leader.

The opposition's third electoral failure in as many years is bound to lead to serious soul-searching by its leaders. Mr Draskovic blamed the opposition's failure to unite. But policy muddles also put off voters. In earlier elections Mr Draskovic savaged Mr Milosevic as a nationalist war-monger. This time, he changed tack and accused Mr Milosevic of being too soft in negotiations with Croats and Muslims over the creation of a Greater Serbia. The charge rang hollow among most people and totally alienatated the big Hungarian, Muslim and Albanian minorities who make up a third of the population.

The outcome strengthens the hand of the Serbian President at the start of an important new round of negotiations in Geneva with the international mediators, Croats and Muslims on ending the war in Bosnia. Mr Milosevic has shown the world he is the only Serbian leader they can negotiate with on bringing peace to the former Yugoslavia.

In Serbia he has established once again his command over the political stage and displayed an unrivalled insight into the national psyche. He has successfully channelled the Serbs' hunger for territorial expansion and great power status into wars to create a Greater Serbia. Croatia has been amputated, Bosnia almost totally destroyed, threats of foreign military international faced down and exposed as a sham.

The Serbs will continue to pay a heavy price for backing the aggressive policies of their leader. Their country is isolated from the world as never before. The economy is so ruined that it is unlikely to revive even if a peace deal is signed in Bosnia and sanctions lifted. The next generation of Serbs may come to regret their parents' enthusiastic support for Mr Milosevic's dreams of glory.

(Photograph omitted)