- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 10, 2002

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia Serbia headed for a major political crisis after it failed a second time to elect a president, with supporters of the top vote-getter vowing yesterday to challenge the outcome.

Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica who won the most votes in a Sunday election that failed because of low turnout claimed he was robbed of victory because of irregular voter lists.

His backers said they would mount an appeal.

"We will not give up on the truth," Kostunica aide Dragan Marsicanin said yesterday. "Those responsible for the election robbery will be held accountable sooner or later."

Sunday's vote was invalid because about 44 percent of the electorate cast ballots short of the 50 percent minimum turnout required by the election law, according to the State Electoral Commission and independent observers.

The inconclusive outcome, which followed a similar failure in October, drew criticism from international groups who sent observers to the election.

"We are very concerned about the negative consequences this unresolved impasse could have for the future of Serbia's reform process," said Thomas M. Cox, of the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly.

The result dealt Mr. Kostunica a serious blow, indicating that the once-overwhelming popular support he enjoyed when he toppled Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 has shrunk.

The uncertainty at the polls also set the stage for a showdown between Mr. Kostunica and his chief rival, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, exacerbating an ongoing power struggle between the two politicians who had teamed up to remove Mr. Milosevic but later split.

Mr. Kostunica's camp claimed "scandalous rigging" of the election results by the state electoral commission and the independent observers. Mr. Kostunica also blamed Mr. Djindjic and the Serbian parliament.

His supporters vowed to appeal the results to the Serbian Supreme Court and international institutions, although Mr. Kostunica's challenge to the October election results was unsuccessful.

Mr. Kostunica, a moderate nationalist with pro-democratic views who advocates cautious reforms, faced two extremists: Vojislav Seselj of the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party, an ally of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein; and Borislav Pelevic of the Serbian Unity Party, founded by late Serbian warlord Zeljko Raznatovic, better known as Arkan.

Exit polls showed that Mr. Kostunica won 58 percent of the votes, Mr. Seselj won 36 percent, while Mr. Pelevic had 3.4 percent, election monitors said.

While existing law bars a runoff after Sunday's vote, it was not immediately clear whether or when more elections would be held.

Mr. Kostunica has indicated he would not run again, but would try to bring down Mr. Djindjic's government in the Serbian parliament, thus provoking nationwide general elections. To achieve that, Mr. Kostunica would have to forge an alliance with Mr. Milosevic's loyalists in the assembly.

Mr. Kostunica's current post is to be eliminated as part of a reform of present-day rump Yugoslavia, which is to turn into a loose union of the remaining republics, Serbia and Montenegro.

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