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Serb Voters to Elect  New President Sunday - 2002-09-28

Voters in Serbia, the larger of Yugoslavia's two remaining republics, elect a new president Sunday. There are 11 candidates vying for the job, but only two are considered to have any chance of winning, while a third could turn out to be a spoiler.

As former Yugoslav president, and Serbian nationalist, Slobodan Milosevic stands trial in The Hague on war crimes charges, the groups that coalesced two years ago to successfully oust him from power are now engaged in a battle of their own.

The key figures in post-Milosevic Serbia are Vojislav Kostunica, now president of Yugoslavia, and Zoran Djindjic, the prime minister of Serbia. They have been locked in a fierce power struggle since they took over from Mr. Milosevic. Their rivalry became more pronounced when Mr. Djindjic sent Mr. Milosevic to The Hague last year over Mr. Kostunica's objections.

Now, Mr. Kostunica, who is Serbia's most popular politician, is running for the republic's presidency. He is doing so because, under a deal brokered by the European Union, Yugoslavia is slated to be replaced later this year by a loose federation called Serbia and Montenegro that will allow the two entities to have nearly complete autonomy, except in the areas of defense and foreign affairs. So, Mr. Kostunica would have more power as president of Serbia than he has now as president of Yugoslavia.

Mr. Djindjic, who is far less popular than Mr. Kostunica, is not running for the presidency. But one of his chief allies is - deputy Yugoslav Prime Minister Miroljub Labus. Mr. Labus, Mr. Kostunica's top rival for the Serbian presidency, is credited with rebuilding his country's relations with the European Union and international financial organizations over the past two years. He was also instrumental in getting Yugoslavia's sovereign creditors to write off two thirds of its $3 billion debt to them.

Political analyst Bratislav Grubacic says the two main candidates in Sunday's election have entirely different agendas. "While Mr. Kostunica, who is a constitutional lawyer, is much more focused on building a legal state, changing the constitution, changing the legal system, creating a sort of institutional environment for a legal state, at the same time, Mr. Labus, who is an economics professor, his agenda is quick privatization, quick economic reform and, then, trying to get back into international organizations and, ultimately, to get into the European Union," he said.

Opinion surveys show both men with around 30 percent of voter preferences.

Pollster Srdjan Bogosavljevic, who heads Belgrade's Strategic Marketing and Media Research Institute, says his polling data show that voter reaction to Mr. Labus is rational, whereas the reaction to Mr. Kostunica is emotional. "When we ask people to give their reaction, first reaction, first association, to the names Kostunica and Labus - for Kostunica, everything is very personal," said Srdjan Bogosavljevic. "He is [seen as] modest. He's honest. He's a patriot. And, if it is negative, he's slow, he's indecisive, things like that. And for Labus, everything is very technical. He is seen as a technocrat. So the good thing is that he is an expert, and the bad thing is that he belongs to Djindjic's team."

Mr. Bogosavljevic says voters' main concerns are the economy and corruption. With average monthly salaries of $150 a month, Serbs consistently list poverty and unemployment as their most pressing problems, and blame the pro-Western reformers led by Mr. Djindjic and Mr. Labus for their dwindling purchasing power. Some even say they were better off under Mr. Milosevic.

The former leader has endorsed a candidate. He is nationalist Vojislav Seselj, and he is in third place with about 13 percent in public opinion polls. Mr. Seselj is trying to capitalize on the frustration felt by many Serbs with the post-Milosevic order

But political analyst Bratislav Grubacic says the fact that Mr. Milosevic appears daily on television from a courtroom in The Hague espousing Serbian nationalism will have little effect on Sunday's election. "The Milosevic factor doesn't really play any role in this election," he said. "Even though people follow his trial in The Hague, he is part of the Serbian past. And, definitely, he cannot come back politically."

The polls indicate that neither Mr. Kostunica nor Mr. Labus will win a majority on Sunday, and that the election will have to be decided in a runoff next month.