Kostunica's Poll Vault

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After surviving NATO bombs and the loss of Kosovo, Slobodan Milosevic has one more battle to wage: the Sept. 24 elections, which will decide the future of the rump Yugoslav federation. The only man standing between him and at least four more years in the presidential office is Vojislav Kostunica, a mild-mannered professor of law committed to building democracy and healing injured national pride.

As a leader of the center-right Democratic Party of Serbia, Kostunica has won widespread respect for his honesty, but Serbs have not until now seen him as a heavyweight, and he remains little known outside the country. For years he was obscured by Vuk Draskovic and Zoran Djindjic, the two powerful but feuding opposition figures. Tired of their mutual backstabbing and occasional flirting with Milosevic, the public has now rediscovered Kostunica. In July, polls gave him an unprecedented 42% of support, compared to Milosevic's 28%. "People just want a normal country, a normal government and a normal ruler," says political analyst Aleksandar Tijanic. "They see Kostunica as someone who can deliver all that."

The 56-year-old Kostunica is someone an average Serb can easily identify with. He drives a battered Yugo and lives in a modest apartment in central Belgrade. Unlike Draskovic and Djindjic, he has never flirted with Milosevic, and has been a staunch advocate for democracy since the days of Josip Broz Tito. But neither is he a Western darling: recently he blasted the U.S. for opening an Office of Yugoslav Affairs in Budapest. He called the U.S. decision "a kiss of death to all truly democratic and patriotic forces in our country," claiming that Western meddling in the Balkans has only cemented Milosevic in power.

Despite Milosevic's slumping popularity, Kostunica still faces an uphill battle. While he got support from Djindjic and 14 other parties assembled under a Democratic Opposition of Serbia grouping, Draskovic has refused to endorse him and has nominated another candidate. The boycott of the elections by Montenegro, Serbia's reluctant partner in the federation, will also cost Kostunica votes. Still, the latest polls indicate that he can beat Milosevic, if the vote is free and fair.

That's a big if. Milosevic has had his rubber-stamp parliament redesign the Electoral Act to suit his needs, and has nominated cronies to the federal body which will count the votes. The vision of Milosevic admitting electoral defeat and congratulating Kostunica remains a difficult one for most Serbs to conjure.