For the past year, Serbia's democratic opposition has been demanding, in countless protests across the country, for elections for a new president and federal parliament, along with regional and city governments.
On Sept. 24, they'll get their chance against the unpopular Yugoslav president. Slobodan Milosevic, for his part, will try to ensure his grip on power for another four years.
Though observers say the election conditions are far from fair, it's still an opportunity. And an unexpected frontrunner has emerged from the mix of opposition leaders. Vojislav Kostunica, president of the Democratic Party of Serbia, is a veteran of Serbia's democratic opposition, but is little known to the outside world.
This may be his strongest asset. Analysts say Mr. Kostunica is perceived by the Serbian public as a principled, uncompromised politician, and that he has remained distant enough from the West to win the "patriotic vote." The ruling party and its supporters often portray opposition groups as lackeys for Western powers bent on disrupting the country.
On July 31, Yugoslavia announced it had detained four Dutch nationals, accused of working for Western intelligence agencies. Yugoslav officials claim the men were plotting to kidnap Mr. Milosevic and others indicted by The Hague War Crimes Tribunal. Paul Risley, a spokesman for the tribunal, called the accusation "pretty good fiction."
A poll conducted in mid-July by the Institute for Social Sciences in Serbia found that Kostunica would beat Milosevic 42 percent to 28 percent in a one-on-one presidential contest - a far better showing than well-known opposition figures such as Vuk Draskovic and Zoran Djindjic.
While not all of Serbia's opposition supports Kostunica's candidacy, he has the support of influential leaders and public-opinion makers like Mr. Djindjic, president of the Democratic Party, and former Information Minister Alexander Tijanic, now a dissident journalist.
Kostunica is an uninspiring public speaker and is not camera-friendly, but Mr. Tijanic says, "His version of Serb nationalism is inoffensive and attractive to Serbian people. He's the man to do it."
Over the past year, Kostunica stayed away from European capitals, while other opposition leaders met Western diplomats to discuss Yugoslavia's democratization. To many Serbs, this shoulder-rubbing with supporters of last year's 78-day bombing campaign against Yugoslavia was offensive.
When Mr. Draskovic kissed Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's hand last winter in Berlin, state-run media showed the footage hundreds of times. Posters appeared all over Belgrade showing the "treacherous act."
Kostunica, meanwhile, warned that "the Balkans' problems must be solved in there and not in European capitals."
In Belgrade, the idea of a Kostunica candidacy is catching on. But at the same time, a sense of resignation hangs over the election season. Opposition supporters say the deck is stacked against them, especially when it comes to media access. In the past few months, the Milosevic government forced independent papers to cut their circulation and took over Yugoslavia's most popular opposition-controlled television station, Studio B, which reached nearly 3 million viewers. The government has promised to allow some election monitors, but only from friendly nations. The opposition is training its own monitors.
In addition, the voting system and voter rolls contain built-in advantages for the Milosevic government, according to Marko Blagojevic, a spokesman with the Center for Free Elections and Democracy, a Belgrade-based nongovernmental organization.
The opposition is aware that Milosevic's indictment by the War Crimes Tribunal last year means he has an added incentive to stay in power - to avoid trial. "The regime will battle until its last drop of blood for these elections. We will probably see new methods to get votes never seen before," says Mr. Blagojevic.
In 1997, for example, an astounding 300,000 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo province supposedly voted for the pro-Milosevic Serbian presidential candidate. This year, Kosovo Serbs will have to travel to southern Serbia to cast their ballots. "They can correct their election results if need be," says Blagojevic.
Such methods may be unnecessary because Montenegro, Serbia's junior partner in Yugoslavia, has decided to boycott. Montenegro's pro-Western government is protesting last month's move by the federal parliament to amend the Constitution. The hastily enacted changes dilute Montenegro's power in the Yugoslav federation, while providing for a direct presidential vote. President Milo Djukanovic has hinted that if Milosevic wins, he may call a referendum on independence.
The US opposes the boycott, and Secretary of State Albright was scheduled to meet with Mr. Djukanovic in Rome on Aug. 1 to discuss the election. "It is important for the democratic opposition in Serbia to unite and participate," she told a news conference.
Some analysts say conditions are so unfair that Serbia's opposition should also opt out. "There is absolutely zero out of 100 chance that the elections will be conducted on a reasonably fair basis. A boycott of federal elections, along with protests, could turn this into a referendum on the legitimacy of the government," says Jim Hooper, a Washington-based analyst.
Serbia's opposition, with the exception of one party, sees things differently. "We will do the best that we can under the conditions. What options do we have? We can vote or use bullets. People want peace," says Nenad Stefanovic, a spokesman for the Democratic Party.
An unspoken strategy is that elections, if stolen, could galvanize mass protests similar to those in 1996 that forced Milosevic to concede a loss in municipal votes.
* Material from the wire services was used for this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society