The second ballot could leave the opposition more divided than ever

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The Independent Online

"He's finished - absolutely finished." "I'm afraid - somehow, he always survives." These contradictory statements from one Serb student yesterday are echoed again and again in the revolutionary city of Belgrade.

"He's finished - absolutely finished." "I'm afraid - somehow, he always survives." These contradictory statements from one Serb student yesterday are echoed again and again in the revolutionary city of Belgrade.

Slobodan Milosevic is under greater pressure than ever before - of that, there can be no doubt. All the evidence points to the fact that we are seeing Milosevic's Last Days. And yet, he has survived too many times before. Many are still wary of what trick the old fox might yet pull, in order to maintain his grip on power.

On the face of it, it seems clear that President Milosevic has suffered a crushing electoral defeat at the hands of the opposition party led by Vojislav Kostunica. The whole world, including his traditional ally, Russia, is pressing him to go. And, on the streets throughout the capital city Belgrade and all over Serbia, millions look set to demonstrate against him and go on strike in the days to come.

And still, some cannot believe that it is really all over. What happens if he simply sits it all out, as he has done before? For the Serb opposition, which has traditionally shown an uncanny ability to start squabbling just at the moment when victory seems to be within reach, the question now is whether it will successfully keep up the pressure to make the once all-powerful regime crumble.

The most encouraging signs for the opposition are that President Milosevic's own people seem to be deserting him on a daily basis. Even so, many assume that victory can still only come with bloodshed. In a sense, that bloodshed might be expected merely to accelerate the fall of the House of Milosevic: dead demonstrators would probably soon mean a dead Milosevic.

The true nightmare scenario, from the opposition's point of view, might be that President Milosevic holds firm until the end of the week with his insistence that the opposition has failed to gain a first-round victory.

If the run-off election scheduled by the government for this coming Sunday goes ahead, some in the opposition might lose their nerve at the last moment and decide to vote in the run-off, while others stick with a boycott. In those circumstances, President Milosevic could gain a quasi-democratic victory - in other words, where no theft of votes would be needed - which would leave the opposition more divided than ever before.

The mood changes in Belgrade from day to day, and from hour to hour. Yesterday's optimist is today's pessimist, and vice versa. For the moment, the scenario of Milosevic's stubborn survival still seems less likely than the put-him-on-a-plane version which everybody in the opposition is hoping for.

Serbia has learnt not to expect any happy endings. In the past few days, however, even dyed-in-the-wool pessimists have learned what it means to hope.

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