Milosevic Bids for Greater Power

Serbs to vote in high-stakes elections that could backfire on the man who called them

MORE than 50,000 people jammed a rain-soaked Belgrade street this week for the final campaign rally of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, the main opposition coalition in Sunday's early Serbian Assembly elections.

Viewers of the state-controlled Belgrade television would never have known, because there was not one report during the 90-minute evening news on Wednesday, about what was by far the biggest campaign meeting held by any party in Serbia.

Instead, TV audiences heard about new state production successes, the government's eagerness for peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the opening of a new rail line and high-tech telephone exchange. They were then deluged by 30 minutes of reports on the campaign speeches and promises by candidates of President Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia.

But every major public opinion poll agrees that the SPS will fall short of the 126-seat majority it needs in the 250-seat Serbian Assembly to secure for Mr. Milosevic uncontested control of the legislative agenda.

Such a failure would be widely seen as new evidence that Milosevic is gradually losing the ability to dictate the course of events in former Yugoslavia.

But, with the start of a two-day ``pre-election silence,'' the outcome remains uncertain, with a prospect of further instability as the international community presses for a settlement in the Yugoslav crisis.

There is little doubt the Socialists will remain the largest party in the assembly, which under the Milosevic-drafted Serbian Constitution wields more power than the federal parliament.

The SPS lost its majority in last year's polls, but garnered the largest bloc of 101 seats. It formed a minority government only with the support of the second-place Serbian Radical Party (SRP) of Vojislav Seselj, an ultranationalist and paramilitary chief suspected of war crimes in Bosnia and Croatia.

The alliance collapsed when Mr. Seselj challenged Milosevic by calling a no-confidence vote in October against Prime Minister Nikola Sainovic over Serbia's slide into economic disorder.

Milosevic preempted the vote by dissolving the assembly and launching a bitter campaign against Seselj in a bid to capture a large portion of the SRP seats in Sunday's polls.

But Seselj fought back, joining other opposition leaders in accusing the regime of corruption and war-profiteering. Their attacks were greatly boosted by accelerating economic mayhem.

``The Socialists have a very good chance of winning a majority,'' claims Mihailo Markovic, a senior SPS leader. ``That would be quite extraordinary considering how miserable life has become. But it seems that most people blame the sanctions.''

The main SPS appeal remains Milosevic's vow to build a ``Greater Serbia'' by unifying Serbia and Montenegro with the territories overrun by his proxy armies in Bosnia and Croatia. Unfortunately for him, every major opposition party is promising the same thing, while at the same time roasting the regime over the growing plight of Serbia's 10 million people.

``This will be a vote of confidence in Milosevic,'' a Western diplomat says. ``None of the others are offering anything substantially different, only a change of image without selling out on the national issue.''

Some analysts and opposition leaders say there is evidence the regime intends to ``cook'' the poll results.

It has not yet announced a final tally of registered voters. Its preliminary figures, show a sudden gain of 40,000 voters in the town of Leskovac, while the number in Belgrade is exactly what it was last year. The Serbian Election Commission has also eliminated a requirement that voters show identification at polling stations.

Some analysts, however, note that the socialists will need some 400,000 more votes than last year to win an absolute majority, making any fraud so enormous as to be easily apparent.

``It's impossible to steal that many votes,'' asserts Ratomir Tanic, a leader of the Civic Alliance, the junior partner in the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, known as DEPOS. He and DEPOS members are cautiously optimistic that the main opposition parties may win enough seats between them to form a coalition, despite a failure to forge a pre-election alliance.

DEPOS's possible partners could include the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party of Serbia and, if necessary, Seselj's SRP.

Some analysts believe Milosevic might even welcome Serbia's first non-left government since the end of World War II in order to discredit his opponents.

By using his presidential powers and control of the bureaucracy and police, Milosevic could block a non-SPS government in whatever it attempted, including an anti-inflation program. He would then call new elections.

Other scenarios include: A coalition between the SPS, the Communist Party-Movement for Yugoslavia, a small party led by Milosevic's hard-line leftist wife, Mirjana Markovic, and the Party of Serbian Unity of Zeljko Raznatovic, a pro-regime paramilitary leader suspected of war crimes and a suspected mafia don; a coalition between the SPS and the opposition Democratic Party, whose ambitious and young leader Zoran Djindjic has been stumping hard on the Greater Serbia platform and expresses a willingness to work with the socialists; or complete political gridlock that forces Milosevic to call another round of new elections almost immediately.

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