Comment: Kostunica Set for Poll Victory

The Yugoslav head of state looks certain to be elected Serbian president in September, posing a headache for his main political rival.

Comment: Kostunica Set for Poll Victory

The Yugoslav head of state looks certain to be elected Serbian president in September, posing a headache for his main political rival.

Wednesday, 11 September, 2002

The Yugoslav president, Vojislav Kostunica, is set to become Serbia's new president. Any other outcome in the presidential election set for September 29 would constitute a major surprise.

The most recent public opinion polls suggest Kostunica enjoys a slight edge over Miroljub Labus, the deputy federal prime minister and candidate of the ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia coalition, DOS, and Serbia's prime minister, Zoran Djindjic.

The election is almost certain to go to a second round. But Kostunica is then likely to scoop up most of the votes that were cast for the other candidates in the first round, merely widening the gap with Labus.

Kostunica is by no means a charismatic leader. But since the ousting of Slobodan Milosevic, the image of this quiet law professor has been transformed into that of a saint and he has been quick to exploit this.

Shrewdly, he has distanced himself from the ruling DOS coalition, positioning his own Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, over the past year between the government and the opposition - in this way distancing himself from the former's failed policies.

In spring this year, Djindjic and the DOS majority in Serbia's parliament expelled the DSS deputies from the assembly. Although the move was far from democratic, it provoked no great furore.

What it means is that if Kostunica did become president of Serbia, he would not be as powerful as one might imagine. Although the post carries enormous authority, without the support of parliament it is significantly weakened.

As president of Serbia, Kostunica will find that he has little parliamentary backing, as most of the parties are loyal to Djindjic. The only way he could change this situation is through early parliamentary elections, to which Djindjic is unlikely to agree.

As matters stand, the two great rival political camps will ultimately have to seek a compromise, form a coalition and share power.

If Kostunica does gain the upper hand in the presidential contest, he may face serious problems in finding enough competent people to run the country. Overall, he is not convinced that rapid economic reform and privatisation is necessary. Though not anti-western, as he is sometimes portrayed by his opponents, he undoubtedly considers national pride and dignity more important issues than, say, interest rates.

Kostunica is helped by his opponent's stiff and rigid demeanour. An economics expert, Labus lacks even a touch of populist charm. Desperate attempts by his PR managers to get him closer to the people have been far from convincing.

Although Labus is officially an independent candidate, he has the strong backing of the DOS coalition and is seen as a Djindjic's loyalist. In other words, votes for Labus translate as approval of the reformist policy of the Serbian government.

However, popular support for the government is waning, largely because it has failed noticeably to improve living standards. Moreover, it has had to take some rather unpopular steps, especially the extradition of war crimes indictees to The Hague tribunal and the 50 per cent rise in electricity prices, which was the result of IMF pressure.

An added incentive for Kostunica's bid for the Serbian president is that forthcoming constitutional changes will convert the existing federal republic into a loose union, leaving the Yugoslav head of state vested only with ceremonial powers.

Kostunica vainly attempted to preserve the old joint Serbian-Montenegrin state, fueling the public perception of him as a man who leaves tasks undone, or even worse, as a captain in the habit of leaving sinking ships. His rivals will certainly endeavour to take advantage of this in the election campaign, which has just begun.

But while he has failings, he has shown significant political skill in expanding his DSS from a small political force into the strongest party on the Serbian political scene, by drawing large numbers of former Milosevic's followers.

Though a leader of the coalition that toppled the Milosevic regime, he has emerged as the most important representative of precisely that old, conservative, patriarchal, somewhat xenophobic Serbia which Milosevic once relied on.

But Kostunica has none of Milosevic's arrogance nor aggression. He may not like making compromises, concessions, deals and agreements, but he does yield when forced to confront reality.

Kostunica is a genuine religious believer, and possibly prefers talking to priests rather than businessmen. This does not mean that he would encourage Orthodox-Church fundamentalism, or neglect the economy.

His opposition to The Hague is well known, but he has already moderated his initially hard line stance towards the international court, wary of incurring international sanctions for non-cooperation.

Unlike the dynamic Djindjic, Kostunica is fairly slow and prefers to analyse every issue at length before deciding to act.

As the two men are likely to remain the main political actors in Serbia, the future shape of the republic is bound to depend on the degree and quality of their future cooperation.

Stojan Cerovic is a commentator with the Belgrade weekly Vreme.

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