Serbia faces political paralysis after vote

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The Independent Online

Serbia faces a long battle between ultra-nationalists and pro-European Union parties after inconclusive election results yesterday left neither side with an obvious coalition.

Serbia's Radical Party, which many outside the country had hoped would be decisively defeated, emerged as the largest party but reformist MPs could still hold sway in parliament if they can heal their rifts.

"Long and complicated negotiations between pro-democracy parties lie ahead," analyst Vladimir Goati said. "Serbia needs a stable coalition government."

With many of the parties nurturing bitter divisions, reaching an agreement within the 90-day limit could prove difficult.

The first issue is the arrest and extradition of indicted war criminal and Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic; the other is agreeing to the changed status of the UN-run province of Kosovo. Both issues were viewed as strongly anti-Serb by supporters of the ultra-nationalists who won almost 29 per cent of the vote.

The Radicals are drawn from the remnants of the Slobodan Milosevic regime that led Serbia into a series of disastrous wars in the 1990s. Their current leader Vojislav Seselj is himself awaiting trial for war crimes against non-Serbs at The Hague tribunal. A government formed by his party would represent a return to the hardline domestic and regional policies, which would likely isolate Serbia from the EU and the wider international community.

The Radical's leader Tomislav Nikolic claimed victory in the elections late on Sunday night, but admitted he would not be able to form the government. His party will have 81 seats in the 250-seat legislature.

Analysts said the likely outcome would be a coalition between the reformist Democrats of President Boris Tadic, who obtained 23 per cent of the vote, and moderate conservatives of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia who got 16.7 per cent of votes. However, they need the backing of at least one of the smaller pro-reform parties such as G 17 Plus or the Liberal Democrats. Together the pro-democracy and reform parties will have 146 seats.

President Tadic put on a brave face by saying "still, the majority of Serbs voted for pro-democracy and pro-reform parties".

"Our aim is a better life and the European Serbia. All parties who want that course are welcome in the coalition," he added. It remains to be seen if Mr Kostunica will heed his call. He has insisted on retaining the premiership, while the Democrats want one of their own in the office.

One of Mr Kostunica's closest aides, Vladeta Jankovic, said the platform for the coalition talks could be ready "within 10 days".

Mr Kostunica still flirts with the nationalist camp and is reluctant to do much about Mladic. He also stands firm on Kosovo, which should "remain within Serbia," as he has said repeatedly. His failure to hand over Mladic led to the suspension of Stabilisation and Association Agreement talks with the EU last May.

Mr Tadic's Democrats are willing to hand over Mladic and are not the hardliners where Kosovo is concerned. Their concerns are for human rights and safety of the province's 90,000 ethnic Serbs, among almost two million Kosovo Albanians who want nothing less than independence. The proposal for Kosovo's final status drafted by the UN negotiator Martti Ahtisaari is set to be unveiled soon.