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Djindjic Party Riding High

Popularity of late premier's party skyrockets, but few believe it can retain such high ratings once state of emergency is lifted
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

The Serbian government's vigorous campaign against the mafia, launched after the assassination of the prime minister Zoran Djindjic, has dramatically changed the political balance of power.


The most recent public opinion survey, conducted by the Strategic Marketing agency in Belgrade, showed 73 per cent of the population backed the government's state of emergency and its campaign against organised crime.


The Democratic Opposition of Serbia, the coalition government dominated by the late premier's Democratic Party, is enjoying higher ratings than at any time since it took power in January 2001.


Before the killing, support for the government had been in constant decline since May 2001, touching an all-time low of 38 per cent on the eve of Djindjic's death.


Observers believe the Democratic Party, now led by the new premier, Zoran Zivkovic, stands to benefit most from the state of emergency imposed one month ago.


A party supported by only 12 per cent of the population last December now enjoys more support than all other parties combined and is tantalisingly close to a record 50 per cent rating.


"The emotionally charged period linked to Djindjic's murder and the state of emergency have worked in favour of the Democrats," Srdjan Bogosavljevic, head of the Strategic Marketing agency, told Belgrade Radio B92. "This party is now the leading political force."


The biggest losers from the assassination are parties linked to the former regime, starting with Slobodan Milosevic's socialists, who may not even reach the minimum threshold of five per cent in the next elections needed to enter parliament, and the hard line nationalist Serbian Radical Party, led by Vojislav Seselj.


The public believes these two parties, and the Serbian Unity Party, founded by the late Zeljko "Arkan" Raznatovic, indicted for war crimes by The Hague tribunal, are tarnished by their murky dealings with the underworld.


Another politician who has lost ground is the former Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica, who defeated Milosevic in the September 2000 presidential election and was until recently Serbia's most popular politician.


Kostunica's popularity and that of his Democratic Party of Serbia have taken a nosedive, as people do not believe he has actively backed the crackdown on organised crime - almost the only public issue of interest at the moment.


After Djindjic's death, Kostunica called for a government of national unity comprising representatives of all political parties in parliament, including widely disliked Radical Party members and socialists. This contributed to sharp decline in his support. Polls held last December showed 21 per cent of the population supported Kostunica, a figure that has slipped to 15 per cent today.


The leader of the reformist opposition party G17 Plus, Miroljub Labus, an ex-presidential candidate, is now in the lead by two per cent margin, according to pollsters.


Kostunica's standing might have been even worse if the ruling coalition had put forward a high-profile leader to step into Djindjic's shoes as the personification of the coalition.


The publication of the latest surveys has angered several parties, especially Kostunica's party, whose officials argue that the results do not reflect the true mood of the public.


"It is utterly wrong to conduct such surveys and go public with the results in a state of emergency," said Dejan Mihajlov, a senior party official, this week.


Political analysts believe four principal factors stand behind the dramatic swing in the balance of power in Serbia.


The first is that the public, including those who opposed Djindjic, reacted emotionally to his violent death. Last December, more than half of those who took part in polls had a negative opinion of the prime minister, but a dramatic change in public perception followed the assassination.


Now only 16 per cent have negative opinions about the late premier, while 66 per cent view his work in positive terms - a rating he never enjoyed when he was alive.


The second reason is that the state of emergency has brought one issue to prominence over all others, namely the ongoing campaign against organised crime. This is why the government, now vigorously cracking down on mafia gangs in Serbia, has won wide popular support, which was not the case when it was focusing on other issues.


The third reason for the change in mood has been the imposition of strict censorship rules on the media as part of the state of emergency. Most newspapers have restricted themselves to publishing only official viewpoints.


Finally, while the government has used its special powers to crack down on remnants of the Milosevic's regime, they have also used the interval to highlight what they see as Kostunica's failings.


The new deputy prime minister, Cedomir Jovanovic, labelled Kostunica as the main culprit for the government's failure to stamp out organised crime.


"Kostunica may not be absolved of responsibility for the actions which, in his capacity as the president of Yugoslavia, he was unable or reluctant to take," Jovanovic told the daily Danas on April 5. He said Kostunica had failed "to make a clean break" with the policies of his predecessor.


Several days later the police arrested two former Kostunica associates during his term as Yugoslav president - his security advisor Rade Bulatovic and his former military intelligence head, Aco Tomic.


Police press releases said the two men were arrested after officers obtained "crucial information" about their " meetings and arrangements" with Milorad "Legija" Lukovic and Dusan "Siptar" Spasojevic, the two Serbian underworld bosses accused of organising the premier's assassination.


This incident may seriously damage Kostunica's reputation as an uncorrupted, honest politician and undermine his position on the political scene.


At the same time, Democratic Party officials have also attacked the successful governor of the National Bank of Serbia, Mladjan Dinkic, one of the leaders of G17 Plus group, comprised of economic experts that recently became a political party. It is believed that this group, with its expertise and uncorrupted past, could become serious political player in any future elections.


Zivkovic last week called on Dinkic to resign his post, arguing that the National Bank of Serbia had no further role given the emergence of the new union of Serbia and Montenegro. Tensions between the two have since subsided, both of them pledging to try to work together.


Many analysts believe the government, its popularity and its ability to maintain the balance of power, will face serious challenges after the state of emergency is lifted.


The unity of sixteen coalition parties would be difficult to maintain, without Djindjic's strong leadership. Most of the government members represent minor political parties, and there is no guarantee that they will stick together.


Nebojsa Covic, the leader of Democratic Alternative, and deputy president, said this week that he had information that some current Serbian government members had been in contact with Legija and other Zemun gang members, but declined to name the ministers involved.


Covic also told journalists that he did not know whether these contacts were being investigated.


"However the bodies dealing with the assassination should look into it fully, regardless of who is involved," added the deputy prime minister.


Some believe the media will also start to voice criticism about the political situation, including the controversial aspects of the anti-mafia campaign, which at the moment enjoys the status of a sacred cow.


Few political analysts believe that the government can hang on to its present high ratings.


In their intent to capitalise on the current support, one of the party's top officials Bosko Ristic announced early parliamentary elections might follow the adoption of the new Serbian constitution late this year.


But his colleagues quickly denied this. Zivkovic said there would be no elections until the end of the next year, after the government's term in office expires.


Zeljko Cvijanovic is the editor in chief of the Belgrade weekly Blic News