The United States says democracy is still "up and running" in Serbia despite the fact that it has failed for the third time in the last 14 months to elect a president. Sunday's election once again failed to attract the required 50 percent turnout of registered voters needed to validate the vote.

The inconclusive election in Serbia produced news reports of a power vacuum and political crisis in Belgrade. But the State Department insists that the democratic process in the Balkan state continues to function, and that a general election next month could lead to a way out of the impasse.

Only about 38 percent of registered voters cast ballots in Sunday's election, well short of the 50 percent required for a valid outcome.

The biggest single vote-getter was Tomislav Nikolic, candidate of the Serbian Radical Party, an ultra-nationalist with close ties to former President Slobodan Milosevic, who is now facing war-crimes charges in the Hague.

At a State Department news briefing, spokesman Richard Boucher said both the low turnout, and the relatively strong showing of Mr. Nikolic and his party, were largely a result of a boycott by two politically-moderate factions. "This reflects the fact that two major democratic and reform-oriented parties chose to boycott the vote. The low turnout exaggerated the results obtained by the Serbian Radical Party. Supporters of the Serbian Radical Party consistently turn out to vote, and so he won a comparable number of votes to those they captured in past elections. There will be another test of support for the political parties in Serbia on December 28, probably a better test of the overall support, when the Serbian electorate will be asked to elect representatives to a new Serbian parliament," he said.

Mr. Boucher said that after the December polling, it will be up to the new parliament to decide what to do about the impasse over the presidential voting. Two previous elections late last year also failed to draw the needed 50 percent turnout.

The post of president in Serbia has been vacant since the term of Milosevic ally Milan Milutinovic ended last January 5. He subsequently joined his mentor in detention at the Hague to face charges stemming from the expulsion of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo in 1999.

The State Department spokesman described the 50 percent election threshold a "peculiar" requirement and noted it had been put in place by the ousted Milosevic government.

He said it could be described as a "poison pill" for Serbian democracy left by the former dictator, but said "the fact is" that democracy is "up and running and functioning" in Serbia none-the-less.

Last February, Serbia and the smaller republic of Montenegro formed a loosely-unified new state named "Serbia and Montenegro" which officially replaced the former Yugoslavia.