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Voter Apathy Renders Serbian Election Results Invalid - 2002-10-14

More than half of Serbia's registered voters failed to cast ballots in Sunday's presidential runoff, rendering the result invalid. Serbia appears to be headed toward the deepening of a political crisis that has slowed economic and institutional reforms.

What if they gave an election and nobody came? That was the sardonic reaction of one Western diplomat in Belgrade to the outcome of Serbia's presidential election.

Just more than 45 percent of the electorate showed up at the polls Sunday, a turnout that fell short of the required 50 percent, established by Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav and Serbian strongman.

The man who succeeded Mr. Milosevic as Yugoslav president, Vojislav Kostunica, polled the most votes by a 2-1 margin over Miroljub Labus, Yugolsavia's deputy prime minister.

Both men are considered reformers, but share different visions of Yugoslavia's future. Mr. Labus wants to plow ahead with free-market economic reforms, whereas Mr. Kostunica's emphasis is on institutionalizing the rule of law.

Mr. Kostunica's current job will either disappear or be downgraded when the Yugoslav Federation is replaced in the months ahead by a looser union between Serbia and its sister republic, Montenegro. He was seeking to shift his power base to the Serbian presidency.

He was angry that his easy victory was thwarted by what he called old-fashioned and irrational election procedures. He accused his arch-rival, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic of tacitly encouraging voters to stay home when it became clear Mr. Labus, a Djindjic ally, would not win.

Ultra-nationalist Vojislav Seselj, who polled nearly a quarter of the vote in the first round of the elections last month, urged his supporters to boycott Sunday's runoff. But analysts say the poor turnout reflects more than just lingering support for Mr. Seselj and his main backer, Mr. Milosevic.

Speaking from Belgrade, analyst James Lyon, of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank, says the main reason for the low turnout was voter apathy.

"People just did not care," he said. "They are sick of politics because they do not see these so-called reformers as having carried out any reforms...There just was not any enthusiasm or any excitement during these elections."

Mr. Lyon says voter apathy is the result of frustration among ordinary Serbs who thought Mr. Milosevic's ouster would improve their daily lives. But unemployment is high, and, although wages have increased during the past two years, they have barely kept pace with soaring prices.

So, what happens now? Belgrade political analyst Bratislav Grubacic says the entire election process must be re-launched later this year.

"According to the Serbian constitution, the election should be repeated, and the president should be elected at least one month before the mandate of the current president expires," he said. "The current president's mandate expires on the 6th of January, so the new president should be elected by the 6th of December."

But Mr. Grubacic says that scenario may not play out because Mr. Kostunica and many other politicians think the electoral rules mandating a 50 percent turnout should be changed first.

"The problem is that Djindjic and his camp will probably not change [the electoral law] if at least they do not get something in exchange," he said. "So what we will face in the next couple of days here will be serious political negotiations between the main political game-players. And the outcome is hard to predict."

If Mr. Kostunica and Mr. Djindjic cannot agree on the rules of the game for a re-run of the election, Mr. Grubacic believes there will be a long process of infighting over amending the Serbian constitution to institute new electoral procedures.

To analyst James Lyon, that prospect will only continue to stymie the reform process.

"Mr. Djindjic and Mr. Kostunica, rather than working on reforming the country and moving it closer to world political and economic integration, would spend all their efforts fighting each other," he said. "Which is what they have been doing up until now. Which is why most of the reform efforts have come to a screeching halt as of the end of 2001 and why there has not been much progress in reforms since that time. So this is the kind of gloomy scenario we can look at right now."

Mr. Lyon says there has been no progress for the better part of a year on reforms of the judiciary, the business environment, the health-care system or the educational system. He says the military has not been brought under civilian control.

He says these are the reforms Serbia needs to become a functional state and attract needed foreign investment. Without them, he says, Serbia will remain in what he calls a political and legal twilight zone.