- The Washington Times - Monday, September 30, 2002

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia Serbia yesterday held its first presidential elections since the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic, with two leaders of the democratic coalition that toppled him vying to replace his associate.
Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus finished first and second, respectively, in an 11-candidate field. But far-right candidate Vojislav Seselj, endorsed by Mr. Milosevic, remained in the running and could benefit from a low turnout under yesterday's gray, rainy skies.
A poll from the Center for Free Elections and Democracy, an independent watchdog group, gave Mr. Kostunica 31 percent, Mr. Labus 28 percent and Mr. Seselj 24 percent, with about 50 percent of the vote counted, Associated Press reported.
If no one wins 50 percent of the vote in the first round, the top two will face off in two weeks. That is likely, given the large field that includes former opposition leader Vuk Draskovic; Mr. Milosevic's top general, Nebojsa Pavkovic; and Velimir "Bata" Zivojinovic, an aging film star known as the Balkan John Wayne.
Serbia, the largest and most important republic in what remains of Yugoslavia, has for the past two years functioned without an effective president. The current officeholder, Milan Milutinovic, is a Milosevic associate who has been indicted by the international war crimes tribunal at The Hague.
However, the government has argued that Mr. Milutinovic can't be extradited while he is in office. He has been nearly invisible and acts essentially as a rubber stamp for the new government.
The broad coalition that defeated Mr. Milosevic in 2000 has since coalesced into two camps. Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic leads one, which includes Mr. Labus. That more Western-oriented camp is willing to cooperate with the international community on harsh economic reforms and with the unpopular U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
Mr. Kostunica is the standard-bearer for more nationalist voters and those pursuing slower, more cautious reforms.
The economy was at the top of the agenda. Average monthly wages have gone up significantly, from $38 in September 2000 to $160 now, but prices have followed suit. Unemployment has remained high, increasing from 26.5 percent to 29 percent in the same period, according to figures from the Economics Institute of Belgrade.
The run-up to the vote saw significant negative campaigning on both sides. Several Labus supporters were attacked while hanging posters or entering or leaving his campaign offices, and Mr. Labus himself was attacked by hundreds of egg-throwing protesters at a rally in the central Serbian city of Cacak last week.
Two years ago, Mr. Kostunica was wildly popular, his approval rating at one point reaching 92 percent. But since then he has been sullied by the constant political sniping between his and Mr. Djindjic's political camps.
He has also fallen out of favor with the West. The U.S. Embassy provided significant behind-the-scenes training and consulting to Mr. Kostunica's coalition before the September 2000 race, but now Western diplomats complain of foot-dragging on cooperation with The Hague and army reforms.
Last week the U.S. ambassador told one newspaper that Serbian voters should choose the candidate who would best lead them toward the European Union, which most interpreted as meaning Mr. Labus. The U.S. Embassy denies it favors one candidate over another.
From his jail cell in The Hague, where he is facing warcrimes charges related to the wars in Kosovo, Croatia and Bosnia, Mr. Milosevic has written two letters endorsing Mr. Seselj, though many of his supporters have refused to believe that their hero, a socialist, would support a far-right candidate.

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