Serb voters resigned to the Devil they know

Yugoslavia, the rump state comprising Serbia and Montenegro, holds parliamentary elections tomorrow that seem likely to produce a victory for the leftist coalition of Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic.

"The united forces of peace and development. . . will celebrate an historical victory over hatred, violence and conservatism," Mr Milosevic told a 6,000- strong crowd in Belgrade last Thursday.

In some ways, it seems astonishing that Mr Milosevic should retain the support of the Serbian electorate, given that he has presided over a period of economic collapse as well as nationalist wars in Croatia and Bosnia which failed to achieve the goal of pan-Serb unification that he proclaimed in 1991. However, Mr Milosevic benefits from the fact that his political opponents are internally divided, harassed by the state, and apparently unable to alter the deferential attitudes of Serbian voters towards authority.

The Serbian opposition has put together an electoral coalition, known as Zajedno (Together), which combines political forces from the liberal centre and independent trade unions to the nationalist right. However, in the unlikely event of victory, few political commentators expect the coalition to stick together.

The odds against the opposition are enormous. State television and radio, the main source of political news for Serbs, have lavished praise on Mr Milosevic for contributing to the 1995 Dayton peace settlement in Bosnia, and have entirely ignored the fact that he stoked the Croatian and Bosnian wars in the first place.

Opposition campaigners have drawn fairly large crowds at electoral rallies in Serbia and Montenegro where they have denounced Mr Milosevic's nine- year period in office.

However, few if any of these rallies have received coverage on state television.

The main opposition leader, Vuk Draskovic, this week accused Mr Milosevic and his hardline Marxist wife, Mirjana Markovic, of trying to win re-election by resurrecting the World War Two divisions between Serbian royalists and anti-Nazi partisans. "They are calling for hatred, new trenches and new divisions. They want to step back to 1941. They don't want to move on to the 21st century," he said.

The best chance for the opposition may lie in the sheer desperation of Serbs, whose standards of living have plunged under Mr Milosevic. A Red Cross study estimated recently that almost three million people - or 28.9 per cent of the Serb and Montenegrin populations - lived in poverty.

In Belgrade and important industrial centres such as Kragujevac and Nis, workers have struck in the past three months to demand the prompt payment of wages. Average per capita income is the equivalent of about pounds 85 a month, the worst level since the 1960s.

However, for many Serbian voters suspicious of change and conscious of the authoritarian pressures on their lives, Mr Milosevic remains the logical choice. His term as president of Serbia expires next year and it is expected he will create the post of Yugoslav president, enabling him to rule unchallenged for another seven years.

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