Official results released so far show the opposition candidate Kostunica leading Milosevic by 48 percent to 40 percent. These are not the final results, but if the pattern holds this means Milosevic is offering a runoff election, since according to his results neither man got the necessary 50 percent. Tonight's decision means Milosevic has made a vitally important psychological step. He's admitted he's not the most popular politician in Serbia, and that he's losing the election. And most importantly, he seems to be opting for a political solution rather than violence and confrontation. That's taken him a lot closer to stepping down.
Milosevic's message in offering a runoff seems to be, 'I'm ready to go but not just yet; give a little more time.' But from what the opposition has said so far, they won't accept it. They're planning a massive rally for Wednesday, to claim their first-round victory. And if they remain united and firm, Milosevic could still instruct his electoral officials to produce a final result that reflects Kostunica's first-round victory.
Of course there'll be plenty of negotiation in the weeks that lie ahead. Even if Kostunica becomes president, Milosevic still controls the majority faction in parliament, and the opposition won't be able to form a government without his approval. He may in fact still be the most powerful politician in Serbia. But still, the psychological bridge he's crossed shouldn't be underestimated. From now on, what Serbia is facing is a political battle, not a physical one.
Tuesday 10:15 a.m. EST: 'Milosevic Can Go Quietly, or Go the Ugly Way'
People here are calm but determined. We're still waiting for the official result of the election, which is now expected to be released only on Thursday. But the opposition plans to hold a huge rally in Belgrade on Wednesday, declaring victory and inviting Serbia to celebrate. Then, the next day, Milosevic will give his own version of what happened in the vote on Sunday.
Right now there's a watertight wall of silence from the government, and the reason it's watertight is simply that Milosevic himself hasn't said anything to anyone, and he's the one who's going to make the decision. So they're not leaking, because nobody in the government actually knows their next move.
So far there's been no police interference in the rallies and demonstrations claiming victory for the opposition, and I expect that Milosevic won't risk provoking a confrontation at tomorrow's big rally. Right now, the opposition won't have any trouble maintaining the momentum of protests. They believe they've won an outright victory in the first round, and they won't accept anything less. Nobody knows what the government will say, but it doesn't matter if Milosevic declares that he won the first round or if he orders a runoff election either way, the opposition will call on people to defend their vote. All he has to decide now is whether to go quietly, or go the ugly way. The writing is on the wall and it says, "He's finished."