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Milosevic Deals Death Blow to Party

The former Serb leader has dealt a deadly blow to his party with a demand to back the ultra-nationalist Vojislav Seselj for the Serbian presidency.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

Slobodan Milosevic has dealt his party a deadly blow from his prison cell in The Hague - and boosted the presidential chances of a radical Serb nationalist at the same time.


Earlier this month, Milosevic called on his Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS, to support the candidacy of ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj at the presidential vote planned for September 29. However, last weekend, the SPS steering committee defiantly voted to ignore the order and field its own candidate instead.


This rejection has not lead to a consolidation of the party. On the contrary, Milosevic's demand has forced it into an impossible choice that may lead to its extinction.


As the strongest opposition party, the SPS has orientated itself towards a leftist ideology over the past two years and now cannot suddenly embrace nationalism. Meanwhile, ignoring Milosevic's order will mean that it can no longer preserve a party membership that has remained loyal only due to the promotion of Milosevic's cult of personality.


The party is now losing its place in the political scene while Seselj takes up the opposition mantle, and the ranks of the Serbian Radical Party look set to be boosted by the defection of nationalist-orientated SPS members.


Milosevic's blow to his own party, which enjoyed an unbroken majority in Serbia for a decade, occurred when the SPS had begun to campaign for his presidential candidacy.


However, to the astonishment of the SDS, Milosevic backed Seselj, explaining that it was in "the main interest of the people and the state to disassemble the puppet government" - referring to the ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, coalition - and that "this goal must be placed before every individual interest of any party".


A close Milosevic associate, who withdrew from politics after the old regime fell in October 2000, told IWPR that the former Yugoslav president's real reasons are "much more personal and much more profound", suggesting that the influence of Milosevic's family had been decisive.


He underlined that Milosevic's daughter Marija has claimed in many interviews over the last few months that the SPS "betrayed" her father, citing this as why she became a member of Seselj's organisation. Even Milosevic's wife Mira Markovic has supported the Serbian Radical Party.


Following a recent meeting of the party's steering committee, SPS general secretary Zoran Andjelkovic told Belgrade radio station B92 that "the SPS has an obligation to its voters to come out with its own candidate and its own programme, not that of a right-wing party".


The candidacy seems to be between Milutin Mrkonjic, who gained popularity as chief of the directorate for reconstructing the country after the NATO bombardment, and Velimir Bata Zivojinovic, a well-known Serbian film actor.


Seselj was quick to warn the socialists of the cost of their rejection. "If they think that the survival of the SPS is possible with the opposition of Milosevic, then they are thoroughly deceived," he told the Belgrade daily newspaper Vecernje Novosti on Monday.


Many analysts believe that Seselj may be right. The SPS electorate has been a mix of nationalists and communists from the party's genesis at the beginning of the nineties until the present day. However, the lure for both groups of voters has always been Milosevic's personality cult.


"Milosevic's entire political career passed in a balance between his leftist ideology and patriotic-nationalist engagements," said a former SPS official, who wished to remain anonymous.


Indeed, over the course of the past decade, the two halves of the SPS electorate have swung between their own party and that of Seselj, depending on whether Milosevic was playing warmonger or peacemaker at the time.


However, the former Serb leader stayed in control of Seselj and his voters either through secret pacts or open coalition, such as that which existed from 1997 until the end of the regime three years later.


Although marginalized, the SPS won 37 of the 250 seats at the first Serbian parliamentary elections, ensuring it was the strongest opposition party in Serbia.


Over the past two years, only the most loyal supporters have stuck with the party - mostly poorly educated or elderly citizens from provincial and rural areas. Public opinion surveys show the SPS currently polling only eight to ten per cent support among declared voters.


It is now assumed that the party will automatically lose the nationalist half of its electorate to the Serbian Radical Party. Yet the support of the former communists cannot be counted on, as they idolised Milosevic.


Belgrade analysts suggest that the real winner is Seselj. With the support of Milosevic's nationalists and the six to eight per cent he commands from his own sympathisers, Seselj may be able to win 13 to 15 per cent of the vote.


If Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica does not announce his candidacy, it could be that Seselj will enter the second round of voting, to face DOS candidate Miroljub Labus.


Many believe Milosevic's retreat from the SPS and rapprochement with Seselj is related to his current position as a prisoner in The Hague, defending himself using nationalist and patriotic rhetoric, and with no further use for the left wing.


"In such a situation Milosevic's natural ally in Belgrade is Seselj, not SPS people who want to hide their nationalist past," the former Milosevic associate told IWPR.


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


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