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.
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.
Opposition election experts said at a panel discussion on Monday that there were many opportunities for government vote rigging, especially in southern Serbia, where many Serbs from Kosovo and refugees from the former Yugoslav republics are registered. Two small districts in the area now boast 1.5 million voters, an extraordinarily high number in a nation with a total of 7.8 million registered voters. Other alleged past methods of vote fraud include managers at state factories handing out filled-in ballots to workers.
In addition, experts say, voting in Montenegro will be difficult to monitor. The pro-Western government in Yugoslavia's junior republic is boycotting the elections to protest recent constitutional changes, handing Milosevic and his supporters an easy victory.
United Nations administrators in Kosovo have agreed that Serbs there will be allowed to cast ballots as well, aggravating tensions with the province's majority ethnic Albanians, who regard themselves as free of Serb rule.
For Kostunica, reaching a turnout rate of 70 percent will be crucial, experts say, as a lower turnout makes it easier for Milosevic to hit the 50 percent benchmark that would avoid a runoff election. One of Kostunica's key campaign goals is to fight a sense of fatalism that may keep people at home on election day. "Determination for change must be stronger than our fears. It doesn't take much to go out and cast your ballot on Sept. 24, and we have a lot to gain from such a small act," Kostunica told villagers in Stajicev.
His key campaign message is that a new government will gradually lift Yugoslavia out of its economic misery. Long lines are common for sugar and cooking oil, when such staples can be found at all.
The variable in the equation is what will happen the day after the elections -if they are stolen as expected.
"We must remember that it took three months of demonstrations in 1996 for [Milosevic's coalition] to accept defeat in municipal elections. That may have to be repeated. But this time it's about the federal state, about [Milosevic's] political and physical existence," Kostunica says.
Regardless of the official outcome, the opposition is planning to hold victory celebrations on the streets the evening of Sept. 24. Milovan Drecun, a former military commentator on state television, has warned of the potential for violence, claiming thousands of police are being trained to "control" crowds.
In September and again in May, police savagely beat large crowds of antigovernment demonstrators.
How far Milosevic may go to stay in power is a contested point. Many analysts and opposition members believe that with an indictment against him by the war-crimes tribunal at The Hague, Milosevic will resort to any means; others argue he would only use enough force to get his point across.
"At the last sequence, [Milosevic] will have no brakes, but I don't think we'll come to that. I believe some sense will prevail in his party and in the police," Kostunica says.
Kostunica recently announced that if he should win, he would not turn Milosevic over to the tribunal, which he views as a politicized institution. The move is also an attempt to lower the stakes for a peaceful transition.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society