Serbs failure to elect a president for third time heralds political crisis

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Presidential elections failed for the third time in a year in Serbia yesterday, triggering a major political crisis in the Balkan republic.

An ultra-nationalist with close ties to Slobodan Milosevic led the ballot, underlining Serbians' discontent with the pro-Western government that ousted the dictator in 2000. His success also indicated a drift to Milosevic's nationalism that triggered the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

Preliminary results showed that about 36 per cent of registered voters cast ballots, less than the 50 per cent needed to validate the vote. Tomislav Nikolic was ahead with 44 per cent of vote, the state electoral commission said. Dragoljub Micunovic, a pro-democracy candidate who had led pre-election polls, trailed with 38 per cent. Four others shared the rest of the vote.

Mr Micunovic said: "This is a defeat for Serbia," adding that he hoped voters would "learn their lessons" in democracy ahead of parliamentary elections in December.

The failed election left Serbia in a power vacuum. Parliament was dissolved last week because the pro-Western government lost parliamentary support, leaving no one to call a presidential vote. New parliamentary elections were set for 28 December.

Zarko Korac, Serbia's Deputy Prime Minister, described the election results as a "tragedy for Serbia". But the Prime Minister, Zoran Zivkovic, said that there was no need to panic because his outgoing government would lead the republic until the December elections.

Stjepan Gredelj, an independent election analyst who monitored the vote, said that he feared "an institutional chaos" without a president.

Voters stayed away from the polls because of disillusionment with the country's leadership, which has failed to bring economic progress to Serbia following a decade of war.

Labour protests are on the rise and people are generally dissatisfied with their living standards in Serbia, which with the much smaller republic of Montenegro formed Serbia Montenegro, the country that replaced Yugoslavia.

"The politicians are getting what they deserve," Mr Gredelj said.