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Voters call for change

Serbian voters expressed a real desire for change as they turned out in record numbers for Sunday's election.

By Dragana Nikolic in London

My elderly mother Rada had just travelled from her summer house in Montenegro to Belgrade to cast her vote. As she sipped her morning coffee with her neighbour Pera, an ardent Milosevic supporter, I called her from London.

"If you vote for Milosevic, you won't see me in your house again", I told her, worried that she might once again fall victim to relentless regime propaganda. "Don't worry", she answered, "For him I would not trudge all the way from Montenegro, I'm voting for Kostunica."

As the day progressed, it became apparent that an unprecedented seriousness had emerged in Serbian politics. There was a high turnout of voters. Many of those I spoke to over the phone expresed a real desire for change.

Vitko, a 35-year-old computer engineer, had just come from the polling station with his mother. "The atmosphere was very positive. I am very happy. It seems that for the first time, older people are prepared to change something.

"I found out that many of them voted for the opposition. I hope for the best, however, I have no news since I cannot pick up signals of any independent radio station".

Natasa, a 37-year-old unemployed economist and divorced mother of two, was about to travel to Surcin, some 30 kilometres away from Belgrade, to her ex-husband's constituency, where she was last registered on the electoral roll.

An apathetic voter in the past, she was going to make a long journey to vote for Kostunica. "Even seeing my ex mother-in-law would not prevent me from voting," she joked. " Every vote counts."

Some were more guarded. Jelica, a pensioner from New Belgrade and supporter of Milosevic, did not want to discuss how she had voted. She remained content to accept the reality offered by state television. "Milosevic won the votes in Kosovo," she announced proudly. " Even the Albanians voted for him."

As the evening wore on, it became apparent that Milosevic had miscalculated the will of Serbian voters. "He hoped that he would loose marginally and that he could rig the elections a little. This is a crucial moment in Serbia. He is falling," said one Belgrade analyst.

While the Serbian Radical Party announced that Kostunica was in the lead, the Federal Electoral Commission was conspicuously silent. Pro-regime Serbian Television broadcast folk dances from around Serbia as if there were no news to report.

Predrag, a university lecturer, said that he was pleasantly shocked by the results. "He has suffered a landslide defeat; even in Pozarevac, often regarded as the litmus test of the political mood. We are euphoric in Serbia."

He pointed out that Vojislav Seselj's ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party, SRS, which ran its own unsuccessful presidential candidate, had acknowledged that Kostunica was in front.

The SRS said Kostunica was leading Milosevic by 53.5 percent to 37.9 percent with 20 percent of the votes counted. It was reported that Milosevic had even lost the municipality of New Belgrade, once his stronghold

Seselj's opposition is seen as serious. A former deputy prime minister of Yugoslavia and onetime Milosevic ally, he and his Radicals began to openly and harshly criticise the regime as the election approached.

The ruling Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS is facing an enormous challenge as news of Kostunica's victory seeps through the independent media. Party activists continue to insist that Milosevic is in the lead, but there are reports that some SPS branches, such as the one in Valjevo, have already acknowledged Milosevic's defeat.

A senior western diplomat in Belgrade who stayed up through the night to witness events unfold, reported "a buoyant mood". "Going for the second round would be an admission of defeat, given that they announced their intention to win the first round," he said.

Milosevic's fortress is slowly beginning to crumble. And it appears there is little he can do about it.

Dragana Nikolic is a regular IWPR contributor

© Institute of War &Peace Reporting

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