Reformer and hard-liner in runoff for Belgrade mayor

Monday, September 20, 2004

BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro -- A pro-Western reformist and a hard-line nationalist loyal to Slobodan Milosevic led the race for Belgrade mayor on Sunday, preliminary results showed. The returns also indicated a close battle between the two rival groups elsewhere in Serbia in key local elections. Democrat Nenad Bogdanovic received 33 percent of the vote in Belgrade, while ultranationalist Aleksandar Vucic garnered 29 percent, according to the Center for Independent Elections and Democracy. The two will face each other in a runoff vote in two weeks, the independent monitors' group said.

The Belgrade mayoral race has been a focus of Serbia's municipal ballot, after recent legal changes made the capital city's leader the third most important political position in the republic after Serbia's president and the prime minister.

Zoran Drakulic, a candidate of the ruling Democratic Party of Serbia, was third, dropping out of contention with 14 percent of the vote, according to the unofficial count. That was a severe blow to Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's ruling conservative coalition and a sign of its sagging popularity.

More than 6 million Serbian voters were also picking representatives for local assemblies in 148 municipalities, as well as mayors of three other major cities -- Novi Sad in the north, Nis in the south and Kragujevac in central Serbia.

In the ethnically tense northern province of Vojvodina, the citizens also voted for the regional parliament.

Election officials have said that official results will not be available before Monday, due to the complexity of the voting system. However, the outcome of the Belgrade race is often indicative of the whole country.

The election -- the first since Milosevic was ousted in 2000 -- was seen as an important step in Serbia's efforts to build democracy following years of isolation under the former president.

But strong gains by Milosevic's nationalist loyalists would likely slow down Serbia's reforms and undermine Belgrade's plans to establish closer ties with the European Union and NATO.

Reformist President Boris Tadic remained optimistic, saying "the results of these elections ... will confirm our stable path toward the EU and NATO."

Tadic added that the elections are "extremely important because they will show which way our country wants to take."

Leading pre-election surveys have put Tadic's Democratic Party in an even race with nationalist Serbian Radical Party loyal to Milosevic.

The polls predicted that the Democrats would keep the post of Belgrade mayor in the runoff vote but that the Radicals could sweep the rural and poor areas which are their traditional strongholds.

"We will be the single strongest party almost everywhere in Serbia," declared Tomislav Nikolic, deputy leader of the Radicals.

The elections are the first held under a new law granting more self-rule to the local communities, contrasting Milosevic-era laws that concentrated most powers in Belgrade.

The Radicals ruled together with Milosevic and were badly defeated along with the former president in 2000. They, however, regained strength, appealing with their populist policies to those Serbs frustrated with lack of improvement in their everyday lives.

One Radicals' supporter, 48-year-old taxi driver Darko Stojanovic, said he expected the party to help Serbia "regain its dignity." Stojanovic accused the pro-Western leaders of turning Serbia into a Western "slave."

In central Belgrade, the reformists' voters said that Serbia has no time to waste.

"We must not let Milosevic's people get back to power," said 27-year-old engineer Slobodanka Rajic.

Election officials reported no problems during the balloting. The turnout was reported at 34 percent.

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