Elections for president of FRY

Nenad Lj. Stefanovic

WED, 16 AUG 2000

Belgrade - At the very beginning of the election campaign for president of FR Yugoslavia the only thing participants of this election race seem to be able to agree about is the word - referendum. From the ranks of the ruling coalition (Socialist Party of Serbia-SPS, Yugoslav United Left-JUL, Serb Radical Party-SRS) it has been repeated for days already that the forthcoming elections are "a specific referendum for defence of freedom" in which the people will "clearly show that they do not wish to vote for servants of the new world order". At the same time, in interviews and statements of the presidential candidate of the united opposition (without Serb Revival Movement-SPO), Vojislav Kostunica, the word referendum is also frequently mentioned. Kostunica claims that these are not real elections but in fact a referendum in which the people will declare themselves "pro" or "con" Slobodan Milosevic and what his regime has brought them in the past ten years.

Both parties are probably right. Should the ruling red-and-black coalition manage to divert the attention of the voters from the disastrous effects of their rule and impose once more as the main topic of these elections certain "high national causes" or intimidate the voters with the threat (and logical absurdity) that their empty pockets may be even more empty, its chances to remain in power will be quite high. Should on the other hand Serbian opposition manage to convince the citizens that this is in fact a referendum on catastrophic effects of the rule of Milosevic's regime, chances of the opposition to make a shift are not exactly negligible.

The referendum on Milosevic, at least in the first round of presidential elections, is for the moment prevented by the appearance of an "excess" of presidential candidates. Along with Milosevic, in the lane that belongs to the regime, vice-president of Serb Radical Party, Tomislav Nikolic will run. Except for Kostunica, in the lane which officially belongs to the opposition, member of the Serb Revival Movement Vojislav Mihajlovic, mayor of Belgrade, will also be running in the race for president of FRY. The list of presidential candidates most probably is not final because new "candidates" for president have been appearing every day from certain minor parties. One of them is the former military commentator of Radio-Television Serbia and last-year's reporter from Kosovo Milorad Drecun. Officially he too should run in the lane that belongs to the opposition although it is generally believed that this type of candidates are in fact playing into the hands of the regime by taking away at least a few thousand votes from the total number that would go in favour of the opposition.

On the basis of what the candidates and their parties are declaring it is at first very difficult to tell who is working for whom in this race, who is running for his own benefit and who is here just to take the baton and keep up the rate when Milosevic gets tired and breathless and then step out again. Political calculus sheds some light on this presidential race. And it says that in case of concentration of opposition votes around a single candidate, on condition that that this candidate is Vojislav Kostunica Slobodan Milosevic has reason to fear losing elections in the very first round. This calculus indeed implies an actual referendum-like choice between Milosevic and Kostunica. In comprehensive public opinion polls ordered by the Socialists past spring for their internal use, leader of Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) Vojislav Kostunica suddenly took the lead among the opposition leaders, leaving behind the until then unquestioned leaders of the opposition parties Draskovic and Djindjic. In these polls Kostunica ranked first according to the negligible small number of negative points, that is, the number of those who have a distinctly negative opinion about him. At the same time it turned out that a little more than one third of the voters of the Radicals were not ready to support Milosevic in the elections and that for majority of them Kostunica, as a politician with "a firm national stand" and critical attitude to the West, would be quite acceptable, if there were no candidate from the ranks of the Radicals. If one adds to all this the assumption that an enormous number of members of the Serb Revival Movement (SPO), in case of such a suggestion from the top of the party, would be ready to vote in favour of Kostunica, one arrives at the answer to the question why there was such a haste to schedule presidential elections and amend the Constitution in the beginning of July. It was believed that the whole opposition would not back a single candidate, in other words that it would need quite a long time to reach any form of agreement and prevent dispersion of opposition votes.

The regime's calculation showed that it was much wiser not to take too much risk and to ensure in time the back of Slobodan Milosevic, even if it meant that he had to, for the first time since he started running in elections, expose himself to the temptations of the second round of elections. Tha Radicals' candidate Tomislav Nikolic certainly does not have the capacity of a winner, but he has sufficient power to prevent dispersion of the Radicals' votes and their significant deviation in the direction of Vojislav Kostunica. Had the Radicals real ambitions to compete for the post of the president of FRY, that job would not have been given to Tomislav Nikolic, but the president of their party himself, Vojislav Seselj, would have entered the race instead. Similar could be said about the candidate of SPO Vojislav Mihajlovic who (unlike his party president Vuk Draskovic) is mostly described by public opinion investigators as a pale and unconvincing candidate who cannot count even on all the votes of members of his own party. By winning several hundred thousand votes Mihajlovic could, however, considerably aggravate the efforts of Kostunica to make it into the second round of elections. From that angle, candidacy of a presidential candidate from the ranks of SPO (regardless of true motives of this candidacy) came as a gift to the regime in its election calculus. Experts for elections claim that an "excess" of opposition candidates almost certainly leads to increased abstention of the voters, repeatedly disappointed in disunity of the opposition and that chances of the opposition go up only in case of an exceptionally high turnout.

The first days of the campaign in presidential elections have indirectly already confirmed the assumptions that in this race there will be plenty of running in favour of someone else. Candidate of the Socialists Slobodan Milosevic will obviously run his campaign from his sofa in the White Court where his associates will be coming to sit by him and submit reports about great success achieved in all fields. Opening of some important bridge at the very finish of the campaign will most probably be used to make the final strong pre-election impression the current president of FRY will wish to make on the voters. The job of blackening the other candidates will certainly be done by someone else. In his first appearances Tomislav Nikolic has already marked Vojislav Kostunica as his main opponent. The leader of DSS was classified among NATO mercenaries and traitors, while in private life for the time being it has been underlined that Kostunica is "a man who has no children". This is just a hint of an exceptionally ugly and dirty election campaign in which the regime and its representatives obviously will by all possible means try to preserve power. The Leftists and the Radicals seem to have reached some form of an agreement not to attack each others or to throw very soft balls to each other which will enable the others to make easily a point at the right moment. For the time being, the quietest and the least active is the presidential candidate from SPO, Vojislav Mihajlovic, who is himself somewhat confused by reactions (even inside his own party) his candidacy has provoked. During the campaign Kostunica and Mihajlovic will most probably try to spare each other poisonous blows and at the same time try to evade the snowball the regime propaganda has already started to roll towards them (especially the leader of DSS).

A month and a half before the elections, all forecasts about the outcome of the presidential race have become absolutely uncertain. Entrance of the candidates of SRS and SPO in the race, at least in the first round prevents the referendum wished for by united Serbian opposition. All the teams are making additional combinations in case some of the candidates drop out of the race at a minute to twelve. Among the opposition they fear, for example, the possibility that the candidate of the Radicals, after several weeks of abusing Vojislav Kostunica, just a few days before the elections, may "suddenly" withdraw from the race, but after having previously called his voters to vote for the current president of FRY. The opposition is also still cherishing the weak hope that something similar might be decided by SPO especially if they realize that Vojislav Mihajlovic is the wrong choice at this moment.

Whatever shifts may take place by September 24, one thing is for sure. As a foreign newspaper rightfully observed a few days ago, on Serbian political scene there is always a sufficient number of those among the opposition who are ready, whenever the regime gets tired, to dip their fingers in a bucket of water in order to sprinkle and freshen up their alleged political opponents. That is why Slobodan Milosevic can lead the presidential campaign of his life apparently calmly, without budging from his sofa in the White Court and by letting even those wearing completely different political colours run for him.

Original article