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Serbian Presidential Candidates: How Dirty Can It Get?

A combo shows two main opposition candidates, Sasa Jankovic, top left, and Vuk Jeremic, down, and current Serbian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Aleksandar Vucic, in Belgrade, Serbia, March, 2017.
A combo shows two main opposition candidates, Sasa Jankovic, top left, and Vuk Jeremic, down, and current Serbian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Aleksandar Vucic, in Belgrade, Serbia, March, 2017.

Sasa Jankovic and Vuk Jeremic differ on many things, but they agree on one: the campaign for Serbia's presidential election is the dirtiest since the votes that kept strongman Slobodan Milosevic in power in the 1990s.

"We've seen difficult times in this country and we have gone through a number of uneven elections, uneven in the sense of free and fair conditions for holding an election," Jeremic said in an interview with The Associated Press.

"But I think that this beats all the votes that I've seen."

The two main opposition candidates will try to beat the odds, media blackouts and public mudslinging as they face the vote Sunday that pits them against autocratic Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic.

No easy task when a recent survey by social research group BIRODI showed that Vucic has received more than 120 times as much news coverage as Jankovic and Jeremic combined during the election campaign.

The mainstream media under Vucic's control has been demonizing most of the opposition candidates without giving them the opportunity to respond. They and their family members have been branded Western servants and criminals and their private details, obviously leaked from secret police files, are being published.

Jankovic, who won international praise for his work as ombudsman, was flatly described by a Belgrade tabloid newspaper as the "killer" of a friend who committed suicide in 1993. An investigation had shown that Jankovic had nothing to do with the death. Mild-mannered Jeremic was said to be "surrounded by the biggest criminals."

On the other hand, Vucic is being hailed as a strong leader and the savior of Serbia, despite the deep economic and social problems the Balkan country is facing. He has been campaigning from his position as prime minister, which gives him the opportunity to use state funds to boost his popularity, including foreign visits to German Chancellor Angela Merkel earlier this month and this week to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Vucic has denied the accusations of running a dirty campaign, saying the only platform opposition candidates have is "hatred for Vucic."

Vucic, a former firebrand ultranationalist now a declared European Union supporter, is a clear favorite to win against 10 challengers from the fragmented opposition. His support is hovering around 50 percent; a single vote above that margin would avoid a runoff election on April 16 that would put him in a much trickier position against a single opposition candidate.

Human rights champion Jankovic is supported by pro-Western liberal voters, while former Serbian Foreign Minister Jeremic has the support of more conservative and nationalist groups. Both are running as independent candidates with no party affiliation.

Although the presidency is largely ceremonial, Vucic is trying to cement his grip on power for another five years. Critics say he wants to establish the kind of autocracy seen in Russia.

Jeremic said one example of the media bias was when Vucic's populist Serbian Progressive Party accused Jeremic's wife, a well-known former state TV anchor, of being the boss of all the narcotics cartels in Serbia.

"She was of course very much shaken and disturbed," Jeremic said. "And when she held a press conference to address the accusations, the prime minister realized that this was a very, very stupid move and he apologized. Not to her, but apologized to the people of Serbia."

"If you were watching TV stations that day, my wife's press conference was about 20 percent, 80 percent was Mr. Vucic's reaction. So, that gives you the proportion when it comes to media exposure," Jeremic said.

As a leader of the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party, Vucic supported Milosevic's warmongering policies in the 1990s that left tens of thousands dead and millions homeless. He was Milosevic's information minister when media freedoms were heavily suppressed.

Both Jeremic and Jankovic criticize the lack of reaction from the European Union, which they say is ignoring Vucic's undemocratic policies at home for the sake of keeping peace in the Balkans.

"I think they are afraid of Vucic," Jankovic told the AP. "They want peace and stability in the Balkans and they know that the only one who can trigger instability is Vucic himself. He is blackmailing Europe."

Jankovic said Europe should not be fooled by Vucic's alleged pro-EU stands at a time when he is strengthening military and other ties with traditional ally Russia.

"Vucic says one thing, does another and thinks something else," Jankovic said. "He is looking at Europe while moving the opposite way."