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Sunday, 29 September, 2002, 22:46 GMT 23:46 UK
Kostunica leads Serbia poll
New Serbia leader Velimir Ilic with Vojislav Kostunica
Kostunica (r) wants a slowdown of reform
The current Yugoslav President, Vojislav Kostunica, is leading the polls in Serbia's first presidential elections since the fall of Slobodan Milosevic almost exactly two years ago.

Exit poll
Vojislav Kostunica - 31%
Miroljub Labus - 28%
Vojislav Seselj - 22%
Exit polls and preliminary results both showed Mr Kostunica with around 31% of the vote, about three points ahead of his main rival, Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus.

Ultra-nationalist Vojislav Seselj, who is backed by former President Slobodan Milosevic, appears to have done better than expected.

But so far only about 6% of votes have been counted, and the first official results are not expected until Monday.

Election monitors said the turnout was low - at 55% - on a grey, wet Sunday.

Labus rally
Labus' supporters: Hoping for economic recovery
All pre-election polls had predicted a close race between Mr Kostunica, who is a moderate nationalist, and Mr Labus, a liberal economist.

Economic reform is a key theme in the election, with many voters suffering hardship and hoping that living standards will improve after years of war and international isolation.

Influence of Milosevic

But Slobodan Milosevic - currently being tried on war crimes charges - continues to cast a long shadow over Serbia.

Mr Seselj, who has emerged as the main opposition force to the current rulers, has appealed to far left and far right voters.

He toned down his anti-Western rhetoric for this election, to portray himself as a champion of the poor.

Vojislav Seselj
Many who dislike the current rulers back Seselj
Neither Mr Kostunica nor Mr Labus seem likely to win the required 50% to take the presidency outright, and the election will go to a second round on 13 October.

But as turnout is traditionally lower in the second round there are now real fears that it will not reach the 50% threshold. If that happens, the whole election will be invalid, plunging Serbia into a constitutional crisis, the BBC's Nick Thorpe reports from Belgrade.

The 11 candidates also include Vuk Draskovic - formerly a key opposition leader - and Nebojsa Pavkovic, Mr Milosevic's former army commander.

Mr Labus, a former professor backed by Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, believes rapid economic reform is what Serbia needs to help improve people's lives.

But Mr Kostunica feels the country is in danger of selling out to the West and wants the Serbian Government to slow down its reform programme.

Yugoslav makeover

Mr Kostunica will lose his job later this year when the Yugoslav federation is dissolved into a much looser union between Serbia and the other republic, Montenegro.

Kostunica supporters
Kostunica supporters fear a sell-out to the West

Speaking as he cast his ballot on Sunday, Mr Kostunica said: "It would be more rational if everything was completed in one round. But we are not the most rational people in the world and, besides, there are 11 candidates."

For the first time in a Serbian election, the Republican Electoral Commission, the main body overseeing the vote, sent text messages to all mobile phone subscribers in the country encouraging them to cast their votes.

Whoever wins will replace Milan Milutinovic, the last ally of Mr Milosevic still in power, who is indicted alongside him for alleged war crimes committed during the Kosovo war.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Matthew Price in Belgrade
"Most voters agree reforms are needed"
See also:

27 Sep 02 | Media reports
09 Aug 02 | Europe
18 Jul 02 | Europe
25 Sep 02 | Country profiles
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