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Last Updated: Friday, 25 June, 2004, 16:22 GMT 17:22 UK
Serbian stalemate set to end at last
By Gabriel Partos
BBC south-east Europe analyst

Serbia goes to the polls on Sunday after a lengthy series of failed elections to choose a new president for the former Yugoslav republic.

This time, with the 50% turn-out requirement abolished, the contest will be won by one of two remaining candidates - the centrist Boris Tadic and the ultra-nationalist Tomislav Nikolic.

Tadic supporters
Serbian voters will finally get an all-out president
Sunday's ballot sees the culmination of efforts that go back as far as September 2002 to find a succcessor to Milan Milutinovic, who subsequently swapped the presidential palace for a cell at the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

By the time the latest voting is finished, there will have been four separate electoral processes involving a total of six ballots - because on two occasions second round run-offs had to be held.

Yet until now, they had all ended in failure because turn-out stayed under the required 50% of the electorate. Now, with that requirement scrapped, an elected president will finally be able to take office after a succession of acting presidents.

The main reason for this protracted electoral process was not so much constitutional propriety for its own sake, as the rivalry that pitted the two main pro-democracy political parties against each other after they had ousted the authoritarian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, from power in 2000.

Pro-European

The initial victim of that rivalry was Serbia's most popular politician, the conservative Vojislav Kostunica, whose attempts to become president were foiled by the pragmatic Democratic Party under the assassinated Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

Mr Kostunica has since taken over as prime minister at the head of a minority administration. But his Democratic Party of Serbia suffered something of a humiliation when its candidate, Dragan Marsicanin, came fourth in the first round of the presidential elections earlier this month.

Boris Tadic
We are a country that deserves in a political sense to be part of the global civilisation
Boris Tadic
Presidential candidate
Meanwhile, the opposition Democratic Party's candidate, Mr Tadic, did better than expected, coming just 3% behind the front-runner, the hardline Mr Nikolic, who gained 30% of the vote.

Mr Tadic has been making the most of his pro-European credentials - in contrast to Mr Nikolic's long-standing nationalism which has prompted European Union officials to imply that his election would lead to Serbia joining Belarus as Europe's other semi-pariah state.

Mr Tadic has been conveying his internationalist message in a calm way as part of his low-key approach.

"It is in our interest to be part of the European Union, to be part of the United Nations, to assume our international responsibilities concerning the fight against terrorism and corruption, and so demonstrate that we are a country that deserves in a political sense to be part of the global civilisation," he said during Wednesday's debate on Serb television.

For his part, Mr Nikolic has adopted a relatively moderate tone.

EU links

Although his Radical Party hasn't given up its long-term commitment to creating a Greater Serbia that would incorporate parts of currently or previously Serb-inhabited regions of Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina, Mr Nikolic has been playing down the issue and has been insisting that Serbia would not use force to achieve these goals.

Instead, he has been concentrating on populist measures of increasing wages and pensions and holding down prices.

All the same, Mr Nikolic remains vulnerable on the issue of whether foreign leaders would be prepared to meet him - a point put to him during the TV debate.

Tomislav Nikolic
So much is rotten in Serbia, perhaps also because it did not have a real president for seven years
Tomislav Nikolic
Presidential candidate
He responded, saying: "Let the voters decide whether or not I will be able to represent them and Serbia well enough.

"There is so much work to be done in Serbia, so much is rotten in Serbia, perhaps also because it did not have a real president for seven years."

Mr Nikolic's reference to the seven years without a real president includes the five year-term of Mr Milutinovic - who was widely seen as an obedient associate of the then Yugoslav head of state, Mr Milosevic, and the subsequent period under acting presidents.

Of course, even with a democratically-elected president, the Serbian presidency has few powers in what is now a parliamentary system headed by the prime minister and his government.

Yet there is a lot at stake in the presidential election. Mr Tadic is widely perceived outside Serbia as a politician who's on the same wavelength as most EU leaders.

By contrast, Mr Nikolic inspires little confidence in the West because of his past and his close links with his party's leader, Vojislav Seselj, who is awaiting trial in The Hague on war crimes charges.

Whatever the preferences of foreign leaders, Serbia's president will be elected by Serbia's electorate.

Mr Tadic looks like being the favourite because he's been endorsed by the prime minister, Mr Kostunica - and more enthusiastically by other parties in the governing coalition.

But Mr Nikolic has a very loyal and disciplined electorate; and an exceptionally low turn-out could help him cause an electoral upset.


SEE ALSO:
Profile: Boris Tadic
15 Jun 04 |  Europe
Profile: Tomislav Nikolic
15 Apr 04 |  Europe
Taxi show gives voters a lift
08 Jun 04 |  Europe
Serb turnout worst in past year
18 Nov 03 |  Europe
Serb Radical outlines ambitions
30 Dec 03 |  Europe


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