- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 26, 2000

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia Tens of thousands of jubilant opposition supporters celebrated yesterday their apparent electoral victory over President Slobodan Milosevic, who was seeking to force a runoff despite calls to accept the end of his 13 years in power.

Chanting "Kill Yourself Slobodan and Save Serbia," more than 40,000 people jammed a downtown Belgrade square to celebrate the purported victory of the pro-Western challenger, Vojislav Kostunica. Thousands also gathered in Serbia's two other major cities of Novi Sad and Nis.

But the lack of any official results more than 24 hours after polls closed Sunday raised fears that Mr. Milosevic would rig the results to force a second round of voting.

The United States and more than a dozen other countries said they would not accept fraudulent claims of victory. The United States also pledged yesterday to lift sanctions against Yugoslavia once Mr. Milosevic accepts defeat.

Mr. Kostunica, a 56-year-old law professor, demanded the State Election Commission release official results within the next two days and warned if Mr. Milosevic tried to tamper with the vote, "we will defend our victory by peaceful means and we will protest for as long as it takes." His party said its own unofficial count gave him around 55 percent of the vote.

In the absence of official results, Mr. Milosevic's left-wing coalition insisted yesterday that the president was ahead in the vote count but not far enough to guarantee that he would avoid a runoff with Mr. Kostunica on Oct. 8.

At a press conference to bolster morale among the president's shocked and demoralized followers, Gorica Gajevic, Mr. Milosevic's party general secretary, said that with 37 percent of the ballots counted, Mr. Milosevic was ahead by 45 percent to Mr. Kostunica's 40 percent.

"This result gives us optimism that we can win in the first round," Mrs. Gajevic said.

Ljubisa Ristic, a neo-communist Milosevic ally, insisted Mr. Milosevic could still win.

"At this moment, the sample is too small for us to say, as we would like to, that our candidate won in the first round," he said.

Mrs. Ristic, however, conceded that Mr. Milosevic's coalition suffered a sweeping defeat in municipal elections. The Democratic Opposition of Serbia claimed it has won 102 seats in Belgrade's 110-seat City Hall.

Mrs. Ristic predicted the left-wing parties will have a majority in the federal parliament. Parliament has become a relatively ineffectual legislature since Montenegro, the other republic that with Serbia forms Yugoslavia, has been boycotting federal institutions.

An opposition leader said, however, that his group would not accept a runoff simply to appease Mr. Milosevic.

"There will be no bargaining," Zoran Djindjic said. "Milosevic should better avoid tormenting the people since he would be wiped out in the runoff."

The Democratic Opposition of Serbia Party claimed that with 65 percent of polling stations counted, Mr. Kostunica was leading with 55.30 percent, compared with Mr. Milosevic's 34.37 percent.

A spokesman for the coalition, Cedomir Jovanovic, said that if the State Election Commission remains silent about the results by tomorrow night, the opposition would "proclaim official results no matter what the government thinks, since it is becoming clear that they are rejecting the possibility to accept the defeat."

Opposition claims were based on reports from its poll watchers stationed at voting stations. All political parties are allowed to have representatives present when votes are counted locally at the 10,000 precincts.

Poll watchers sign an affidavit accepting the count and are free to report the results to their national headquarters.

The opposition claimed its margin was so wide that Mr. Milosevic could not convince the public he had won. The outcome may turn more on public perceptions than on whatever the election commission announces.

"Votes can be rigged when there is a slim difference between two groups, but when the difference is this big there is no way anyone can falsify the results," said Vladan Batic of the opposition alliance.

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