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Serbian presidential elections

Dejan Djokic
17 September 2002

Almost exactly two years after the ‘October revolution’, when the regime of Slobodan Milosevic crumbled, the Serbs are going to the ballot boxes again, this time to vote for the president of Serbia. Since December 1997, the post has been occupied by Milan Milutinovic, once a close ally of Milosevic. Because he was in the office during the Kosovo war, Milutinovic has been indicted by The Hague tribunal. But his negligible influence on Serb politics meant that neither The Hague’s prosecutors nor the new Serbian authorities bothered to replace him after the fall of Milosevic.

To do so, extraordinary elections were needed and it was deemed, both in Belgrade and in Western capitals, that they could destabilise the fragile democracy government. However, Milutinovic’s term is now coming to an end. Before the year is out, he will not just leave office, but probably also Serbia – for The Hague.

The two strongest challengers for the post are Vojislav Kostunica, the Yugoslav president, and Miroljub Labus, a respected economist and the deputy prime minister in Yugoslavia’s government. While Kostunica’s popularity is considerable, it has fallen significantly since he defeated Milosevic in the September 2000 elections, to become the head of the increasingly loose Serbo–Montenegrin state. On the other hand, a combination of personal charisma and open support from Zoran Djindjic, Serbia’s reform-minded prime minister, and G-17 – a think-tank of leading economists and other experts whose membership includes Labus and Mladjan Dinkic, the dynamic governor of the National Bank of Yugoslavia – has seen Labus’ popularity rise since he announced his candidacy a few weeks ago.

According to the latest opinion polls, Kostunica and Labus are supported by around 25% of the electorate each, while Vojislav Seselj, leader of the far right Serbian Radical Party, commands around 13% support. Other candidates, including Vuk Draskovic, once the leader of the opposition, and Velimir Bata Zivojinovic, a well-known actor and a member of Milosevic’s Socialist Party, should not receive more than a few per cent of the vote.

Zivojinovic, best known for numerous roles in World War Two films, is also remembered for his role as an impotent male prostitute in the film version of Dubravka Ugresic’s novel ‘In the Jaws of Life’. His most memorable line – ‘And now, I am going to screw you’ – has been oft-quoted by rivals to warn Serbs that in the unlikely event of a Zivojinovic victory, this is what the Socialist Party will do again to Serbia.

For the first time in recent years, the ‘national question’ is not the key electoral theme. According to one in-depth analysis of the rhetoric of the presidential candidates, economic reforms, social policy and the prevention of crime dominate their campaigns. EU entry and the relationship between Serbia and Montenegro are topics also high up on the list, although Kostunica, as the federal president, is naturally more concerned with the latter, while Labus, who enjoys a good relationship with Western governments, is more concerned with the former. Kosovo and the issue of war crimes are much less frequently mentioned in the speeches and interviews of the presidential candidates.

Only four years ago, the Serbs’ choice was to vote for Milutinovic, a pawn of Milosevic, or Seselj, whose address book contains the names of people such as Vladimir Zhirinovski and Jean-Marie Le Pen. Now it is between Kostunica and Labus. The Yugoslav president’s conservatism and moderate nationalism (moderate by the standards of the region) make him attractive to former Milosevic supporters, as well as to Draskovic’s disillusioned voters. Labus’ pro-reformist outlook means that he is supported by the younger and better educated. Despite their differences, both are democrats. Although none has a decisive lead in opinion polls at present, Kostunica is more likely to win if there is a second round.

Much will depend on a group of three small democratic parties within the ruling coalition, and who they support. The leader of this coalition within a coalition, Dragoljub Micunovic, was the first president of the Democratic Party before Kostunica broke away in 1993, and before Djindjic staged a mini coup against Micunovic a year later, to take over the party. Because Labus is strongly supported by Djindjic, the elections will clearly reflect the dominant theme of post-Milosevic Serbia – conflict between Kostunica and Djindjic over the speed of reforms and the level of integration into international institutions.

The democratic-minded Micunovic, over recent years politically closer to Djindjic, is now shifting towards Kostunica. One reason for this may be Djindjic’s increasingly authoritarian style of government, which has clearly alienated him. There is also a rumour in Belgrade that Kostunica has promised Micunovic the position of a president of Serbia–Montenegro, as Yugoslavia will soon be renamed. The position is largely ceremonial, but might appeal to Micunovic, currently the speaker of the federal parliament, who, although born in Serbia, is of Montenegrin origin.

Victory for Labus is most likely to ensure the continued recovery of Serbia’s economy and would be welcome in Western capitals. Kostunica’s victory, which at present seems more likely, is hardly likely to stop Western aid or to lead to renewed international isolation, as his opponents argue. However, it would slow down the process of reform, and could undermine Serbia’s international position.

Also, Kostunica’s well-known nationalist views would continue to pose an obstacle to Serbia dealing with its recent past. Despite initiating and setting up a truth and reconciliation commission, many observers remain unconvinced that the current Yugoslav president is interested in more than proving that Serbs were not the only perpetrators in the wars of Yugoslav dissolution (which they were not).

Either way, however unlikely it may seem, what with economic and social issues dominating the pre-election campaign, and the general lack of interest shown by the electorate, Serbia appears to be slowly becoming a ‘normal’ country. In the summer of 2000, when I was in Belgrade, virtually everyone I spoke to talked about politics and the coming elections (although, admittedly, hardly anyone believed that Milosevic would lose, or that he would allow Kostunica to win). Now, a group of students around the Otpor (Resistance) movement, which campaigned vigorously for Kostunica in 2000, are busy collecting the 10,000 signatures necessary for the acceptance of another candidacy. But this time, it is Tito – the former Yugoslav president – who has been dead for 22 years.

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