Leading article: An election that solves little

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The Independent Online

The Serbian election results offer disappointment and consolation in almost equal measure. They are disappointing because the extreme nationalist Radical Party of Vojeslav Seselj increased its share of the vote and will remain the largest party in the Serbian Parliament. Hopes that international opprobrium might reduce the Radical Party's appeal proved unfounded. The trial of Mr Seselj in The Hague, along with the death in custody of former President Slobodan Milosevic last year, may even have had the opposite effect.

The consolation is that, even with its enhanced parliamentary presence, the Radical Party has still fallen well short of an overall majority. Its leaders accept that they will remain in opposition. Among the other parties, the Democratic Party of President Boris Tadic did especially well, almost doubling its share of the vote. It looks likely to form a coalition with the Democratic Party of Serbia, headed by the outgoing Prime Minister, Vojislav Kostunica. These two parties might need to join with a third - smaller - party, but the outlines of a plausible coalition are already clear.

Relief that Serbia's voters have rejected extreme nationalism, however, needs to be tempered with the realisation that this election has solved almost nothing. Serbia's fractious politics remain pretty much as they were.

The immediate risk is that the coalition negotiations prove more difficult and so more protracted than expected, creating a climate of instability. The risk for the slightly longer term is that the new government turns out to be too weak and divided to exercise effective power. Worse still, the two Democratic parties are split on the very issue that looms largest on the horizon: the final status of Kosovo. The UN envoy is due to present his recommendations later this week. Although Kosovo remains formally a province of Serbia, its Albanian majority mostly boycotted the weekend elections. Its government wants full independence, while Serbia will only countenance broad autonomy within Serbian borders. Independence would be hard for any Serbian government to swallow, but the Democratic Party of Serbia is more strongly opposed than the President's Democratic Party, while a strengthened nationalist opposition could complicate the picture further.

Kosovo, and Serbia's failure to surrender General Ratko Mladic to the International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague, are the main reasons why Serbia remains an international outsider. Both issues are also key to advancing Serbia's hopes of joining the European Union. Sunday's elections may have kept those hopes alive; whether they progress will depend on the attitude of Serbia's next government.