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Serbian Voters Choose Between Past and Future - 2003-12-27

Nationalists led by war crimes suspects could make a strong showing but not win a majority in Serbia's parliamentary elections. The vote is being held Sunday, one year early after a pro-western coalition government collapsed following the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic earlier this year.

Opinion polls say one in four Serbian voters will cast ballots for the far-right Serbian Radical Party, led by war crimes suspect Vojislav Seselj, but that it is unlikely to form the next government.

Although Mr. Seselj is behind bars for his trial at the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague, he defied a United Nations-imposed ban on campaigning by using a telephone on Christmas Day, when prison guards were reportedly paying less attention.

Mr. Seselj told supporters he was confident his party is headed for victory in the elections.

Less popular, but still a major political player, is the Socialist Party of Serbia, whose main candidate is former president Slobodan Milosevic, even though he too is on trial in The Hague on dozens of war crimes charges, including genocide.

Balkan commentators have cited various reasons for the strong support for these nationalistic parties.

Many voters are said to be attracted to the nationalists' idea of a Greater Serbia, including parts of Bosnia, Croatia and full control over Kosovo province. That ambition fueled the Balkan battles of the 1990s in which about 250,000 people were killed.

There is also widespread anger over the decision by the new leadership to extradite Mr. Milosevic to the U.N. court, which is seen in some quarters as biased because most suspects on trial are Serbs.

In addition, pollsters have linked the popularity of nationalist groups to public unhappiness over the perceived failure of the pro-western political allies to tackle poverty in Serbia, where nearly one in every three people of working age is unemployed.

The ruling coalition, which toppled Mr. Milosevic in 2000, eventually collapsed in the political turmoil that followed the assassination in March of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic by underworld figures linked to the previous regime.

Analysts suggest some parties of the DOS coalition are still likely to form a new moderate government led by the Democratic Party of Serbia and the liberal G-17-Plus party to keep the nationalists out of power.

But European Union diplomats are concerned the growing political clout of the nationalists will make Serbia less inclined toward further cooperation with the U.N. tribunal.

On the eve of the Serbian elections, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said the ballot will be a choice between Serbia's past and its future.