The Dangers of Milosevic on the Ropes

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Stealing an election in Serbia isn't easy, even for a felon as seasoned as Slobodan Milosevic — and that makes the Serb strongman more likely to play for time, or even start another war somewhere as an excuse to hang on to power. As results poured in Monday from ballot boxes from all over what remains of Yugoslavia, the bitter winter of 1996-97 may be weighing heavily on Milosevic's mind. Weeks of massive street demonstrations in Belgrade had forced him, early in 1997, to concede city hall to the opposition party chosen by the voters, and now it appears that Yugoslavia's voters have once more dealt their president a crushing blow. Although official results aren't expected before Tuesday, government sources claimed opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica had netted around 43 percent of votes, while a range of opposition and outside groups said Kostunica was favored by well above the 50 percent required to declare a first-round victory. But either way, the size of the opposition vote appears to have discouraged Milosevic from fraudulently claiming a first-round victory, for fear of sparking a popular backlash.

While the strongman has the backing of the military and the police, deploying them against half of the population would be untenable — it's a conscript army, after all, and the reason Milosevic actually bothers to hold elections at all is that he requires some measure of popular consent to rule. He may therefore opt for a runoff election, preferring to suppress some of his opponent's vote tally rather than inflate his own so that neither man registers more than 49 percent. Milosevic, also, is far from lacking in the requisite cynicism required to simply use opposition charges of widespread ballot fraud as an excuse to call another election. And if he does play for time, the temptation may prove overwhelming to distract the electorate by fomenting another confrontation with NATO, either in Kosovo or Montenegro.

The danger, for Milosevic, in any of these scenarios may be that the very military, political and business elites on whom he has relied to keep him in power may now conclude that he has become a liability. Kostunica may well turn out to be Milosevic's worst nightmare, not simply because he's more popular with voters, but also because he may be sufficiently acceptable to the military and other Serb elites to allow them to finally jettison a leader who presided over a decade of disaster. Kostunica, after all, is a nationalist — albeit comparitively moderate — and firmly opposed to NATO. He's even vowed that, if elected, he won't hand Milosevic over for trial in the Hague. But he's also a democrat who has promised to turn Serbia into a "normal" European country. It would be foolhardy, at this stage, to count out a streetfighter as seasoned as Milosevic, but there's no doubt that he's facing the fight of his life.