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Milosevic Coalition Divided

Slobodan Milosevic's election prospects have been severely damaged by government feuding
By Milenko Vasovic

The ruling Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS, has been racked by internal conflicts and an escalating feud with its coalition partner, the Serbian Radical Party, SRS.


The political ructions could severely undermine the electoral prospects of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, assuming the September 24 municipal, federal and presidential polls are fair.


For several years now, some members of the SPS have felt the Yugoslav United Left, JUL, a minor coalition party led Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic, has acquired unwarranted social and political influence, to the detriment of socialist party members.


JUL officials are represented in ever greater numbers both in the republican and federal governments.


SPS members are currently furious over the way JUL has been favoured in electoral lists for the coming poll. Of the total number of candidates registered to contest seats in the federal parliament, 40 per cent of them are JUL members.


The depth of the SPS rift over JUL's preferential treatment is unclear. But the recent resignation of Zoran Lilic, Milosevic's advisor and a member of the SPS Executive Board, suggests that the problem is significant.


The SPS tried to conceal the resignation, insisting that the party remained unified. Lilic, however, publicly confirmed that he had chosen to step down.


Not even seasoned observers of Serbian politics could have envisaged such a scenario. To date, no one has ever willingly left the SPS.


Lilic's resignation may prompt undecided voters and moderate SPS supporters to hand their vote to someone else - the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, for example.


Lilic was a member of the SPS leadership for years. He was the speaker of the Serbian parliament and a president of the former Yugoslavia. Even though he was an obedient cadre, he had sufficient courage to speak his mind on occasions.


For instance, he sided with those who proposed in 1996 that the results of local elections in which the opposition triumphed should be accepted. The poll had been annulled by the authorities, provoking public protests in many of the larger towns in Serbia.


He failed in his attempt to become Serbian president in 1997. Judging by the way the SPS conducted his electoral campaign, it was obvious the JUL-supporting faction of the party were not keen to see him win.


SPS disagreement over JUL is not its only problem.


The SRS recently launched a stinging attack on the SPS and JUL apparently to improve its popularity. (According to current opinion polls, the SRS presidential candidate, Tomislav Nikolic, would only win between 7 to 10 per cent of the vote.)


It was further evidence of a widening rift between the coalition partners. In August, SRS leader Vojislav Seselj stopped the Serbian government approving a 6.43 million German mark donation to the Oil Industry of Serbia, NIS, a state enterprise controlled by JUL.


It is assumed that part of that money was earmarked for financing the SPS and JUL electoral campaign. In the past, the NIS financed Mirjana Markovic's trip to China.


Tomislav Nikolic and Aleksandar Vucic, another prominent SRS member, resigned from the board of state television, RTS, earlier this month. They claimed its daily news bulletins favoured the SPS and JUL. In a retaliatory move last weekend, September 9-10, the Radicals barred RTS from SRS events.


The Radicals have a point. Coverage of Nikolic's pre-election campaign has been limited. This is because he could pose a threat to Milosevic's candidature: a significant nationalist faction, which in the past has backed the Yugoslav leader, could switch their support to Nikolic.


The SRS could inflict serious damage on the government and engineer Milosevic's fall, but few expect the party to opt for an all-out war with the regime.


Another factor militating against a Milosevic victory is the state of the Serbia. The country is bankrupt, there's no cooking oil or sugar in the shops and no fuel at the petrol stations. Patriotism and nationalism, Milosevic's only cards, are looking very weak at present.


Opinion polls indicate that Vojislav Kostunica, the DOS candidate for the presidential poll, has a substantial lead over Milosevic.


But as Milosevic's prospects have foundered, state repression has been stepped up. Every day, police arrest members of the anti-regime organisation Otpor (Resistance) and opposition activists putting up posters and distributing election material.


Gorica Popovic and Nikola Djuricko, the actors who took part in the DOS campaign, were detained for several hours at a police station in Ub near Belgrade, on Saturday, 9 September.


The same day, five Otpor activists were beaten up by police in Vladicin Han, a town in southern Serbia. Police took computers and propaganda material from the organisation's headquarters in Belgrade on September 4. On Friday, September 8, it confiscated equipment belonging to the election monitoring NGO, CeSID.


No one believes Milosevic will hand power over peacefully if defeated. Analysts suspect Yugoslavia will have two presidents after the September 24 elections.


One will be Vojislav Kostunica who will win the poll and be recognised by Europe and the United States. The other Milosevic, who will not accept his defeat and continue to rule as if nothing happened.


Milenko Vasovic is a regular IWPR contributor


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