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Losers Either Way

If elections are held in Serbia this autumn, the opposition will once again have to decide whether to participate and legitimise them, or boycott.
By Milenko Vasovic
Serbia may be on the verge of elections. If so, the opposition has to decide whether it will compete or boycott.



Though support for Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) has never been lower - around 15 per cent and falling according to opinion polls - the Yugoslav president appears willing to call early elections.



Speaking during the opposition's Belgrade rally last week, SPS spokesman Ivica Dacic said that the party was ready for elections. And later the same day, Vojislav Seselj, the leader of the Radical Party of Serbia (SRS), formally announced an early poll.



According to Seselj, the three parties which form Serbia's ruling coalition, the SPS, the SRS and the Yugoslav United Left (JUL) of Milosevic's wife Mira Markovic, agreed to "accept the initiative of the opposition to hold early elections".



At the time of the announcement, however, opposition parties had not called for early elections. Vuk Draskovic, leader of the Serbian Resistance Movement (SPO), only made his appeal in the evening at the rally, well after Dacic and Seselj made their statements.



As a result, many analysts view the calling of snap elections as but Milosevic's latest manoeuvre in his battle to hang on to power. The Yugoslav president is leaving his principal opponent, the Alliance for Changes, little time for the campaign. Moreover, problematic electoral laws, government control over the electoral process and restrictions on media freedom all remain.



Milosevic seems to be calculating that he will be able to maintain power either with the support of Seselj's Radicals or in a new coalition with Draskovic's SPO, at least until the next crisis.



As so often, the key figure is Draskovic who, according to the Belgrade news agency Beta, met up with the Yugoslav president last week before the Belgrade rally. Though Draskovic denies that any such meeting took place, most commentators believe that the two men used the occasion to agree to new elections.



Milosevic is aware that elections in which the ruling coalition partners are the only contestants are likely to backfire. He therefore requires the participation of Draskovic and the SPO to provide some legitimacy and a semblance of democracy.



This is what happened in 1997 when the Democratic Party of Zoran Djindjic and some other parties boycotted parliamentary elections, but Draskovic decided to participate. Moreover, it is possible that the regime's biggest wish - that the Alliance will boycott the vote - may be realised.



Slobodan Vuksanovic, the vice president of the Democratic Party, the strongest party in the Alliance, said that snap elections are just another of Milosevic's tricks.



"Snap elections are Milosevic's attempt to extricate himself from the hopeless situation he finds himself in as a result of international isolation, the lack of money, the implosion of state institutions and the people's discontent.



"That attempt should be an incentive for ever greater demonstrations and the Alliance will use it as yet more evidence of his destructive policy. It will be a stimulus to step up the protests," Vuksanovic says.



Mladjan Dinkic, principal author of the "Serbian Stability Pact" and a member of the G-17 group of economists, also opposes early elections. He says that they are just a ploy by Milosevic to buy time which would dash hopes of the formation of a transitional government supported by many parties, intellectuals and the Serbian orthodox church.



According to one source close to the opposition who wished to remain anonymous, Milosevic is aiming to fragment the opposition by holding out the prospect of elections in such a way that parties fall out over whether or not to participate. Indeed, the even the Alliance for Changes is itself is divided over the issue.



The leaders of certain parties, primarily those who that have not contested elections to date, as well as the former governor of the National Bank, Dragoslav Avramovic, think that the Alliance should run.



Goran Svilanovic, president of the Civic Alliance of Serbia and a member of the Alliance, believes that elections held under rules drawn up by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe before the end of the year would help stabilise the political situation in Serbia.



"The Alliance for Changes has commissioned an opinion poll and it will be completed over the next ten days. The decision on participation in the elections will be made then," he says.



Many analysts fear that irrespective of whether opposition parties participate or, indeed, of the results, Milosevic's grip on power will not be loosened. No poll is scheduled for the office of the Yugoslav president. Moreover, although his party has already been defeated many times in elections, he remains in power. In Serbia's 1997 parliamentary elections, for example, Seselj's SRS and Draskovic's SPO, both then in opposition, won a majority. But then Seselj formed a coalition with the SPS and saved Milosevic.



Milenko Vasovic is a regular IWPR contributor from Belgrade.



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