Analysis: Serbia's ambivalent vote

By STEFAN NICOLA, UPI Correspondent  |  May 14, 2008 at 1:52 PM
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MAHON, Spain, May 14 (UPI) -- Despite the unexpectedly strong results the pro-Western parties secured in the Serbian general elections, analysts say coalition negotiations will be lengthy and difficult. And ironically, it's the Socialists, once led by autocratic leader Slobodan Milosevic, who are able to tip the scale one way or another.

Western observers had expected the worst from Sunday's parliamentary elections in Serbia. Fearing a nationalist backlash over the EU-backed independence of Kosovo, politicians had feared that the vote would move Serbia closer to Russia, instead of the EU.

Yet virtually everyone was surprised when election results were announced Monday. President Boris Tadic's pro-EU Democratic Party won 39 percent of the vote, 10 points more than the nationalist Radical Party.

"Serbs have undoubtedly confirmed a clear European path," Tadic was able to tell his jubilant supporters.

"The Democrats' great winning margin has been a complete surprise to everyone," Dusan Reljic, an analyst for the Institute for International and Security Affairs, a Berlin-based think tank, told United Press International in a telephone interview.

Speaking on his cell phone from the Serbian capital, Belgrade, where Reljic currently observes the election results, the analyst said no one yet knows why Tadic's Democratic Party had been so weak in pre-election polls.

He speculated that it was mainly due to an efficient voting campaign that had stressed the economic benefits Serbians would see when choosing the path toward EU membership. Reljic added that a recent decision by Italian carmaker Fiat to buy Serbian automaker Zastava, which may result in investments of roughly $1 billion and the creation of thousands of much-needed jobs, proved to be a crucial turning point for many people who had lost employment, Reljic said.

Yet, of course, the EU also had a hand in this. Brussels had not only openly supported Tadic's Democrats, the body on April 29 also signed an agreement with Serbia to put the country on track for full EU membership, following that decision with another that waived Serbs' visa fees for 17 European countries.

The Nationalists, who had been performing well in pre-election polls, suffered also because of a great voter turnout.

"And in reality, the Nationalists have always been mainly a safety valve to let off the people's frustrations about Serbian politics," he told UPI.

Yet the 29 percent they won is still enough to fuel insecurity when it comes to the look of Serbia's future government.

The Democratic forces and the Radical parties -- including that of nationalist Premier Vojislav Kostunica, the DSS, and the Socialists of the late autocratic leader Milosevic -- divide the country's support almost in half, and no easy solution comes to mind at first sight.

"The negotiations will be difficult and long; they will probably take the full 90 days before new elections are necessary," Reljic said.

Even the EU, after initial euphoria, now sounds more cautious.

"I hope that a new government can be formed rapidly, which would be strongly committed to reforms and to meeting the necessary conditions for further progress towards Europe," Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, said in a statement. "The European Union would give such a government all its support."

Radical leader Tomislav Nikolic has already met with Kostunica to discuss possible alliances; Tadic's Democrats have the Liberals and other minor democratic forces to team up with, but a coalition with a strong majority may only work with the help of Milosevic's Socialists, who in turn may grab that option to "cleanse themselves" of their dark past, Reljic said.

The next weeks will see a frenzy of negotiations and behind-the-scenes bargains, observers say.

Meanwhile, ordinary Serbs are surprisingly calm, Reljic said.

"The mood here is very unemotional," he said, citing talks he had with Serbs. "The excitement from politicians and the media is much bigger than the people's. They behave as if there would be no political crisis at all."

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