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Serbia's First Elections Since Milosevic Take Place Sunday - 2002-09-28

Serbia goes to the polls Sunday for its first presidential election since the ouster from power of Slobodan Milosevic two years ago. The voting takes place against the backdrop of unemployment and low wages resulting from painful reforms introduced by Serbia's pro-free market government.

There are 11 candidates running for Serbia's top job, but only two are believed to have a chance of winning.

One is Vojislav Kostunica, the current president of Yugoslavia, whose present job may disappear when Serbia and Montenegro approve a new, looser form of union later this year to replace the Yugoslav Federation.

The other is Miroljub Labus, Yugoslavia's deputy prime minister and the man who is considered to be the architect of the country's economic reform program.

Mr. Labus has the support of Zoran Djindjic, the prime minister of Serbia, and, like Mr. Djindjic, he advocates speeding up the reform process so that Serbia can eventually join the European Union.

Mr. Kostunica, Serbia's most popular politician, believes the reforms should take place at a slower pace because of their massive social cost. A stickler for legal procedures, his priority is to build institutions that adhere to the rule of law.

Mr. Kostunica was an ally of Mr. Djindjic and Mr. Labus in the democratic coalition that successfully drove former strongman Milosevic from power. But when Mr. Djindjic engineered Mr. Milosevic's extradition to the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague last year over Mr. Kostunica's objections, the two groups split and have been bitter rivals ever since. Mr. Kostunica accuses Mr. Djindjic, the most powerful man in Serbia, of disregarding democratic rules in his efforts to push through reforms.

The disappointment many voters feel at the decline in living standards as a result of the reforms has led to a mistrust of politicians in general, even though these are being hailed as Serbia's first free and fair elections under a democratic government.

Ivan Stankovic, a 73-year-old retired government employee in Belgrade, says through an interpreter that he is not even thinking about voting.

"I've got nothing to say on these elections," he said. "The politicians tricked everyone in the past, especially the young. They're not going to trick us older people. They'll never trick us again."

Mr. Djindjic and Mr. Labus have slashed the work force at government-owned factories in an attempt to make them more productive. Many Serbs are now fending as they can. Jagos Vojinovic, for instance, lost his job two years ago as a worker in an automobile plant and is now selling underwear in a flea market. He takes home about $6 a day, not enough to feed a family of four.

"These elections are more likely to support a candidate that opposes the government [of Mr. Djindjic] rather than so-called reformers," he said. "I know the reforms are slow [in producing results], but I don't have enough money to support my family."

Added to the despair of people like Mr. Vojinovc is a real concern about corruption. Ordinary Serbs say cronyism is rife and that a handful of people have become very rich, often through criminal connections. They say that, in this respect, life has not changed much since Mr. Milosevic was ousted.

Pollsters say the size of the turnout will determine the result of Sunday's elections. Most polls show support for the two main candidates hovering around 30 percent, with hard-line nationalist Vojislav Seselj, who has Mr. Milosevic's support, expected to come in third with around 13 percent.

If the surveys are correct, the two front-runners will face each other in a runoff next month.