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Conservative Kostunica Favored to Win Upcoming Serbian Elections - 2002-10-13

Voters in Serbia are casting ballots in the second round of a presidential election whose outcome hinges on the size of the turnout. If fewer than half of the electorate goes to the polls Sunday, the election will be declared invalid and a new first round will be held in two months.

Pre-election opinion polls predict conservative Vojislav Kostunica will win a majority of the vote and defeat free-market economist Miroljub Labus. But analysts in Belgrade say there is only a 50 percent chance that the required turnout figure will be reached.

Mr. Kostunica and Mr. Labus joined forces two-years ago in the campaign to topple former Yugoslav, and Serbian, president Slobodan Milosevic. But the two men share different visions of Serbia's future.

Mr. Labus advocates what will have to be painful economic reforms in order to attract foreign investment and eventually put Serbia on the road to membership in the European Union.

Mr. Kostunica, the man who succeeded Mr. Milosevic as President of Yugoslavia, opposes many of those reforms and advocates more social protection for those who have lost their jobs as a result of the reform process. He describes himself as a moderate nationalist and has criticized Western demands that Serbia extradite suspected war criminals to the international tribunal in The Hague.

Yugoslavia is slated to become a loose union of Serbia and Montenegro in the months ahead, under an agreement mediated by the European Union. Mr. Kostunica's present job may disappear or, at least, be downgraded. That is why he is running for Serbia's presidency.

With rain prevalent across most of Serbia, Western diplomats monitoring the election are expressing concern that most eligible voters will stay away from the polls. A lower than 50 percent turnout, they say, will lead to fresh political turbulence, government paralysis, and economic uncertainty.

It is not only the bad weather that might keep voters away. The bickering between the two camps of democratic activists who united to overthrow Mr. Milosevic has turned off many Serbs. Mr. Kostunica and Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who backs Mr. Labus, are barely on speaking terms.

Adding to the confusion is a call by radical nationalist Vojislav Seselj for his supporters to stay away from the polls. Mr. Seselj, who had the backing of Mr. Milosevic in the first round, polled a surprising 23 percent of the vote, to Mr. Kostunica's 31 percent and Mr. Labus' 27 percent.

Turnout in the first round was just more than 55 percent.