President Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia declared yesterday a ``great victory'' in snap elections for the 250-seat republic assembly, saying that unofficial returns showed it regaining the absolute majority it lost last year.
If confirmed, the result would greatly strengthen Milosevic in dealing with Serbia's economic calamity, caused by war and UN sanctions, and strengthen Belgrade's position in international negotiations on resolving the Yugoslav crisis, including the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
``It looks like he can batten down the hatches and navigate through the uncertain period ahead,'' says one Western diplomat here, assessing the results from Sunday's ballot.
The first official returns announced by the Republic Election Commission and based on 20 percent of the total electorate, gave the Socialist Party 95 seats, followed by the main opposition alliance, the Democratic Coalition of Serbia (DEPOS) with 46 seats, the Serbian Radical Party (39 seats), and the Democratic Party (33 seats). (Serbs in Croatia rebuff Milosevic, Page 7.)
The commission was not expected to publish until tomorrow the final official results from Serbia's third Assembly poll in as many years. But because the commission is run by the Milosevic-controlled communist-style bureaucracy, there was little reason to doubt that the official results would vary widely from those of the Socialist Party.
``The Socialist Party of Serbia has won the elections and can expect between 124 and 128 seats in the legislature,'' Ivica Dacic, the party's chief spokesman, told a news conference. ``It is a great victory for the Socialist Party.''
Opposition leaders, however, refused to accept the Socialists' victory claim, saying it was premature and that they had received widespread complaints of fraud and irregularities. They further insisted that the semi-complete results reported to them from their vote-counting center observers showed the Socialists failing to reach the 126-seat absolute majority of the 250 seats.
But DEPOS, led by opposition leader Vuk Draskovic, said that its reports showed the Socialists winning 101 seats. DEPOS claimed it would take 51, the radicals 40, the Democratic Party 31, and the Democratic Party of Serbia eight. The rest would be scattered among minor parties, DEPOS announced.
Serbia uses a proportional electoral system under which a party must win at least 5 percent of the vote in each of the nine electoral districts order to win a seat.
The elections were boycotted by the 2-million strong independence-seeking ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo province to protest harsh police repression. The boycott was regarded as a major boon to the Socialists, because of the pro-Milosevic bias of Kosovo's minority Serbs.
Ironically, the Party of Serbian Unity, which spent vast sums on its campaign, was not expected to win a single seat. It is led by Zeljko Raznatovic, known by the nom de guerre of ``Arkan.'' He is the leader of the ``Serbian Tigers'' paramilitary group, a reputed crime lord of Belgrade, and a suspected war criminal.
The Socialists' results defied opinion polls, which projected that party would retain the largest block of Assembly seats, but fail to gain the majority they lost in last year's elections. At that time, they captured 101 seats and were only able to form a minority government with support from the Serbian Radical Party.
The Radicals are led by Vojislav Seselj, chief of the paramilitary Serbian Chetnik Movement, which fought in Croatia and Bosnia. Mr. Seselj is named on a United States list of suspected war criminals.
The Socialist-Radical alliance came under increasing strain as Seselj began challenging Milosevic's stewardship of the drive to forge a ``Greater Serbia'' through the annexation of territories conquered by the Bosnian Serbs and their ethnic brethren in Croatia with Belgrade's backing.
Seselj accused the Serbian strongman of preparing to ``sell out'' Croatia's minority Serb rebels by secretly agreeing to a peace settlement that would give them autonomy, but not independence from the Zagreb government.
He also began attacking Milosevic over Serbia's unprecedented economic chaos, claiming he had failed to rein in raging hyper-inflation that has all but destroyed the Yugoslav dinar and led to growing social hardships, including food shortages and mass unemployment.
The feud came to a head in October. The Radicals first blocked the passage of legislation and then withdrew their support for the minority socialist government of Prime Minister Nikola Sainovic and sponsored a no-confidence vote. Milosevic preempted the vote by dissolving the Assembly and calling for elections.
Zeljko Simic, a deputy federal prime minister considered extremely close to Milosevic, said that the Socialists would now be free to take the harsh steps needed to halt inflation, including stopping the unrestricted printing of money, wage and prize freezes, the rationing of basic goods, and cuts in the size of government.