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Serbia: Labus to Contest Presidency

Upcoming Serbian presidential elections to be next battleground in conflict between progressive and conservative forces
By Dimitrije Boarov

The decision by a popular reformist to stand for the Serbian presidency is likely to meet a formidable challenge in the shape of the nationalists' champion, Vojislav Kosatunica


The speaker of the Serbian parliament, Natasa Micic, confirmed last week that early presidential elections would take place on September 29. They had been scheduled for the end of the year when the incumbent's term in office ends.


The reformist Miroljub Labus, federal deputy prime minister and an economic expert, is the only candidate to throw his hat into the ring so far, but he is likely to face the conservative's champion federal president Vojislav Kostunica.


Labus - who can count on the support of Kostunica's rivals in the reformist wing of the ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, coalition, gathered round the Serbian premier Zoran Djindjic - has set his eyes on the post now occupied by an indicted war criminal, Milan Milutinovic, a lame duck president since his former patron, Slobodan Milosevic, fell from power.


Though an embarrassment to his office, Milutinovic has enjoyed Djindjic's protection in his fight against extradition, after swiftly transferring loyalty to the premier following Milosevic's fall in October 2000. The prime minister in consequence has repeatedly rejected tribunal demands for his transfer to the Netherlands.


Djindjic has exploited Milutinovic's dependence on his support to prop up his fragile government - the Serbian constitution grants the president the prerogative of dissolving parliament and of appointing the prime minister.


The premier has also used Milutinovic to influence the decisions of the Supreme Defence Council, a body commanding the Yugoslav army, comprising the presidents of the republics of Serbia and Montenegro and the federal head of state.


At the moment, Djindjic is not sufficiently popular to seriously challenge Kostunica for the Serbian presidency. His strategy will to be back Labus, the only other potential candidate with the power to beat Kostunica whom, he fears, would bring down his administration if elected.


Labus, who confirmed his candidacy on July 22, said his campaign would concentrate on economic issues and on the completion of the stalled reform programme. Sounding an upbeat note about his chances, he said, "I deeply believe I can win these elections."


The presidential candidate said the question before the public was whether "we want to score, or stick in the mud and do nothing. I am convinced Serbia will score and become a leader in the Balkans".


His strongly reformist agenda virtually guarantees him the support of all the progressive parties in the DOS coalition and a good deal of public backing. Opinion polls show Kostunica and Labus running neck and neck, with the former enjoying a slight edge.


The federal deputy prime minister and his team have made a big contribution towards Yugoslavia's re-integration into several crucial international organisations, including the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank and the Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe - seen as the key for eventual European Union membership.


He also heads the well-known reformist economic think-tank G 17 Plus, whose agenda DOS incorporated into its election programme just before the toppling of the Milosevic regime.


All eyes in Serbia are now on Kostunica, who has yet to declare his hand. In mid-July, he told the BBC he wanted to concentrate on redefining the thorny question of Serbia's constitutional ties with Montenegro. But members of his Democratic Party of Serbia have since put strong pressure on him to announce his candidacy.


On July 21, his party's deputy leader, Dragan Marsicanin, said his boss still had plenty of time to think it over "as the nominations will be open until September 8".


Setting out his party's more nationalistic vision of Serbia's future, he added that Labus was a "good candidate for a bank director but a very bad candidate for state president". In a sarcastic side-swipe at Labus' business credentials, he remarked that "to head a state you don't need the backing of the IMF but of the people".


Dimitrije Boarov writes for the weekly Vreme and Daniel Sunter is IWPR's coordinating editor in Belgrade