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Hidden victories in Yugoslav vote

Milosevic lags in opinion polls, but is expected to win Sept. 24. Opposition parties will protest results.

By Alex TodorovicSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 13, 2000



BELGRADE

Serbian opposition leaders should be feeling pretty confident right now. With presidential, parliamentary, and local elections looming, the main opposition candidate holds a 10- to 20-point lead over incumbent President Slobodan Milosevic in opinion polls.

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The popular student movement Otpor (Resistance) has made "He is finished" a rallying cry across the country. (In Yugoslavia, there's no need to ask who "he" is.)

Yet the opposition and most average citizens are convinced that come election day, Mr. Milosevic will be declared the winner. This is in part due to his long career built on the skillful manipulation of public opinion and the political process. If that fails, critics claim, he can always cheat.

What the opposition hopes, is that the expected Milosevic victory will require fraud on such an unprecedented scale that the populace will refuse to accept it.

"If [Milosevic] has to rig only 200,000 votes to avoid a runoff, he can do that and get away with it. But he couldn't steal 500,000 to 1 million votes and save the credibility of the elections," says Miladin Kovacevic, an election adviser to Vuk Draskovic, leader of the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement.

In the capital, Belgrade, political posters are wallpapered three-layers thick on main thoroughfares as opposing parties cover each others' posters and spraypaint insulting graffiti on opponents' billboards. The national television network is firmly loyal to Milosevic, and frequently denigrates his main opposition opponent, constitutional lawyer Vojislav Kostunica.

Mr. Kostunica, for his part, spends his days racing across Serbia, the larger of the two Yugoslav republics, speaking by bullhorn at village intersections and town halls. "I think Kostunica should win because he's more popular. But I don't think he will," says Nikola Trninic, who is among a small but attentive crowd in the village of Elemir in northern Yugoslavia. His is the prevailing view, according to Srbobran Brankovic, who runs the Belgrade polling agency Medium. Despite Kostunica's commanding lead, only 22 percent of Serbs believe he will be Yugoslavia's next president.

Opposition parties say the government is already displaying strongarm tactics to ensure a Milosevic victory. Police raided Otpor headquarters on Sept. 4. Tax-agency police last weekend entered the offices of the Center for Free Elections and Democracy, or CeSID, a nongovernmental organization that is training thousands of election monitors. The Yugoslav government is only allowing a limited number of election monitors from what it considers to be "friendly nations."

"Police confiscated our computers and without them, it is difficult to do our job," says Slobodanka Nedovic.

Information Minister Goran Matic called CeSID an "outpost of the American administration." Mr. Matic also maintains that polls showing Kostunica ahead of Milosevic are fraudulent.