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Kostunica Wins First Round in Serbia's Presidential Election - 2002-09-29

Projections based on exit polls by an independent monitoring group in Belgrade give conservative Vojislav Kostunica a first-round victory in Serbia's presidential election. But, he did not get a majority of the votes cast and will have to face pro-western economic reformer Miroljub Labus in a runoff next month.

The projections by the Center for Free Elections and Democracy, a watchdog group whose exit polling has been reliable in the past, give Mr. Kostunica more than 31 percent of the vote.

Mr. Labus, his main rival and the architect of Yugoslavia's economic reform program during the past two years, is shown coming in second with over 27 percent.

And, in a surprisingly strong showing, radical nationalist Vojislav Seselj the candidate backed by former Serbian and Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic is seen coming in third with 22.5 percent.

Mr. Seselj's total is viewed as an indication that Serbia has not yet moved beyond the extreme nationalism that characterized the Milosevic years, whose legacy of wars led to the dismemberment of the old Yugoslavia.

Front-runner, Mr. Kostunica, the man who defeated Mr. Milosevic for the Yugoslav presidency two years ago, is likely to see his present job disappear when Serbia and the smaller Yugoslav Republic of Montenegro form a looser union in the months ahead. That is why he is running for the presidency of Serbia.

Sunday's 11-man contest was essentially a referendum on whether Serbia should push ahead with the free-market economic reforms espoused by Mr. Labus, the runner-up, or slow down the pace of change to lessen the social impact of the reforms.

Mr. Kostunica, Serbia's most popular politician, has long advocated such a go-slow approach. He is often critical of the West and would prefer that suspected Serbian war criminals be tried at home and not in The Hague, where his predecessor is being tried for genocide.

Pollster Srdjan Bogosavljevic says Mr. Kostunica appeals to a wide cross-section of the Serbian electorate.

"He has voters who are in favor of reform and against reform," he said. "So they are expecting of him to stop reform and to push reform. They are expecting him to change Serbia's direction and to continue in the same direction."

Mr. Bogosavljevic and other analysts say Mr. Kostunica is poised to win next month's runoff against Mr. Labus, not only because of his wide appeal but also because many nationalist voters will cast their ballots for him in the second round.

Final official results of the first round of voting will be available on Monday.