Serb poll rivals neck and neck

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MILAN PANIC, the moderate challenger in Serbia's presidential elections, was last night running neck and neck with the hardline nationalist President, Slobodan Milosevic, according to an exit poll.

The poll, based on 1,370 voters who were interviewed at 60 voting booths, granted both Mr Panic and Mr Milosevic exactly 47 per cent of the vote. But the 4 per cent margin of error allowed by the polling agency is just enough to allow either candidate to snatch victory in the first round. If neither Mr Panic or Mr Milosevic wins more than 50 per cent of the vote, a run-off ballot must be staged in two weeks' time.

The exit poll suggested that elections to Serbia's parliament will be equally close- run. Forty-eight per cent of voters supported the opposition coalition called Depos and the allied Democratic Party, according to the poll's findings, and 48 per cent voted for the ruling Socialists headed by Mr Milosevic and their close allies, the ultra-nationalist Radical Party, headed by Vojislav Seselj. The poll was conducted by an agency commissioned by Mr Panic's team. The findings were strongly contested by the ruling Socialist Party. They conducted an exit poll which suggested that Mr Milosevic was winning by a wide margin in the capital, Belgrade. The outcome in Belgrade, Serbia's most populous city, is likely to determine the final result.

Voting was brisk yesterday, marred only by cries of fraud from opposition parties that back Mr Panic's run for the presidency. Opposition supporters inundated their headquarters with complaints that their names had been wiped off the electoral roll.

The election has been widely portrayed as a choice between continued fighting, for a Greater Serbia, under Mr Milosevic, or peace and an end to international quarantine with Mr Panic. But in grimy Rakovica, most voters appeared willing to give Mr Milosevic and his ex-Communist government another spell in office, in spite of tumbling living standards caused by the fighting in the former Yugoslavia and a Western economic blockade of Serbia and Montenegro.

'Milosevic has held Serbia together - before he came to power Serbs were not allowed even go to church or sing national songs,' said a housewife leaving the polling station. 'Milosevic is one of the four greatest men in Serbian history,' chimed in a toothless pensioner. 'That man Panic is the biggest traitor since the Battle of Kosovo (the historic Serbian defeat of 1389 inflicted by the Ottoman Empire).'

A worker from Rakovica's rubber factory said most people were voting to unite all Serbs from the former Yugoslavia in a Greater Serbian state. 'I am 90 per cent sure Milosevic will do the job,' he said. 'All this talk of war crimes is made up by the West. Germany and America are much more guilty for the fighting in Bosnia than we are.'

Working-class Rakovica is not ideal terrain for Mr Panic, a millionaire businessman with a US passport, whose interest in Serbian history is known to be small. But in Pancevo, a market town in the former Austro-Hungarian province of Vojvodina, Mr Panic's election campaign, geared to economic issues, appeared to fare better. 'Panic will get rid of sanctions and get us into the European Community,' a worker at Pancevo's aerospace factory said. 'Panic is supported by the whole world,' agreed his older factory colleague. A bank clerk said he voted for the opposition because another term for President Milosevic 'means civil war for sure inside Serbia'. But even in this country market town, Milosevic supporters were thick on the ground. 'I am voting for Serbdom,' said one man in his thirties who works in a state-run firm.

In an ethnic Slovak village deep in Vojvodina's fog-bound marshes, support for Mr Panic was rock solid. The people of Kovacica fear Slovaks are next on the list for 'ethnic cleansing', if Mr Milosevic and his Radical Party allies sweep in for another term. 'We are definitely frightened of Mr Seselj,' said an old lady. A local school teacher said he planned to emigrate with his family if the opposition loses the election. 'My brother-in-law has already gone to Prague,' he said. 'He fled last year to avoid the call-up for the war against Croatia.'

Mr Panic said that if the election was fair 'we will win in the first round'. But Mr Seselj, a close ally of Mr Milosevic, predicted a rout in the election of 'treacherous forces' - meaning Mr Panic. 'The West will shortly have to capitulate before proud and dignified Serbia,' he predicted.