High-Stakes Vote

In anticipation of Yugoslavia’s Sept. 24 presidential and parliamentary elections, President Slobodan Milosevic is stacking the deck in a desperate attempt to ensure a desired outcome. “Stakes in the game are too big to believe that the current confrontation might be solved peacefully and tolerantly, admitting defeat and [extending] congratulations to the winner,” wrote Ivan Torov, a prominent columnist for Belgrade’s independent Danas (July 29-30).

Milosevic’s regime kicked off its campaign with the “draconian punishment of our colleague and ‘evident spy’ Miroslav Filipovic,” an investigative reporter with Danas, sentenced to seven years in prison for espionage and spreading false information. Each day, police detain anti-regime activists, many of them for the crime of wearing T-shirts with anti-government slogans, underscoring the regime’s recurrent message that the country is under threat of “aggression” both from the West and from “NATO mercenaries.”

If Milosevic were to win, he would probably delay, if not avoid, his departure to the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague. But he is “very self-confident and does not see the opposition as having even the slightest chance of winning the elections,” the independent English-language newsletter VIP reported (Aug. 8).

Despite this bravado, Milosevic has hedged his bets by altering the constitution to weaken parliament’s ability to remove the president, Dragan Bujosevic wrote in the independent weekly NIN (Aug. 10). Opinion polls have shown that the Serbian opposition in cooperation withthe Montenegrin ruling coalition led by President Milo Djukanovic could easily win the elections, provided they abandon their differences and cooperate, Bujosevic wrote.

The opposition, which for 10 years has been unsuccessful in its efforts to topple the Yugoslav strongman, is fully aware that it might disappear from Serbia’s political scene if it loses the elections. “The opposition faces a major, if not final, test of its maturity,” the independent weekly Blic News stated (Aug. 9). Nevertheless, the opposition remains divided and debilitated by its leaders’ personal ambitions. Some 15 parties, including Zoran Djindjic’s Democratic Party, nominated veteran opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica, head of the Democratic Party of Serbia, to stand against Milosevic. “At this very moment, 14 percent more voters would support Kostunica than Slobodan Milosevic,” the influential independent weekly Vreme wrote (Aug. 12). “Some 42 percent of the electorate is ready to vote for [Kostunica], while 28 percent would support Milosevic.” However, Vuk Draskovic’s Serbian Renewal Movement has put forward its own candidate, the relatively unknown Belgrade mayor Vojislav Mihajlovic. Draskovic, once considered the opposition leader, has been accused of collaborating with Milosevic. “According to all estimates, Slobodan Milosevic will benefit the most from the SPO decision,” Blic News said.

This internecine conflict among the opposition parties prompted Nikola Sainovic, a senior official of Milosevic’s Socialist Party, to claim that the Yugosalv president “has no serious challenger in the elections,” according to an article in the pro-government Politika (Aug. 11). “I do not expect a run-off, since President Milosevic will win in the first round,” Sainovic boasted.

“We are preparing a campaign aimed at motivating people to vote,” Branko Ilic, an activist in the student-led anti-regime movement Otpor (Resistance), told Blic News (Aug. 9). [For more on Otpor, see “Youth: The Shape of Things to Come,” WPR, August 2000.] “If necessary, we will go door-to-door passing the word, even in a whisper, saying, ‘Turn out at the polls, and take your family with you, because you are the one who makes the decision,’ ” Ilic said.

Despite the fact that surveys during the past year consistently show that two-thirds of Serbs want to oust Milosevic, the odds are not in the people’s favor, given that the regime has gerrymandering and manipulation of the electoral process at its disposal. The Aug. 8 VIP reported that the regime “counts on electoral machinations bringing them at least another 30 percent above the number of votes they will actually win.”

The election outcome could determine the fate of the Yugoslav federation, since the leadership of independent-minded Montenegro has decided not to take part, following constitutional and legislative changes in early July that downgraded its position in the federation, strongly favoring Milosevic. “The opposition’s success at the polls would initiate the arduous process of Milosevic’s downfall. A bad outcome for the opposition would set Serbia back several decades, and Montenegro would then probably resolutely set off on the road to secession,” predicted an editorial in the  Aug. 8 edition of VIP.