Key elections held amid rigging accusations

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia, AP

In the biggest challenge ever to Slobodan Milosevic’s rule, voters began choosing a new president and parliament Sunday in a historic ballot which polls indicate the Yugoslav leader may lose.

Hours before the polls were to close, an independent monitoring group reported major voting irregularities that included opposition representatives being kicked out of polling stations or not allowed to inspect voters’ lists, voting boxes and ballots.

At many voting places, police were present in front of polling stations, and there was public — instead of secret — voting in southern regions of Serbia, the group said.

In the eastern town of Negotin, opposition representatives were banned from a polling station but managed to get in by force, only to find that the ballot boxes had been stuffed in advance with ballots for Milosevic, the group said.

“It is worse then ever,” said Marko Blagojevic from the Center for Free Elections and Democracy. “I don’t think elections like this were ever held anywhere, ever since the Stone Age.”

Sunday’s election marks the first time Yugoslavs have ever chosen a president directly. With the race tight and prospects for cheating high, the outcome may turn on which of the two leading candidates — Milosevic and Vojislav Kostunica — can convince the public that he is the rightful winner.

Milosevic, appearing relaxed, cast his ballot accompanied by his influential wife, Mirjana Markovic, in the plush Belgrade district of Dedinje where they live. Milosevic told state-run media that he expected the vote will bring “good for the country and our people.”

“I expect that the political scene in Serbia will be cleared up, which will create conditions for permanent stability and quick economic development,” Milosevic said.

Kostunica, backed by 18 opposition parties, has been leading by an average of 10 percentage points in the latest opinion polls. Three other candidates are seeking the presidency, and if no one wins an absolute majority, a runoff will be held in two weeks.

Kostunica said after voting that he expected to win.

“The regime is aware that it is losing these elections and that the people are free from fear to say what they think about such authorities,” Kostunica said.

Despite trailing in the polls, Milosevic controls the government media, police and all other centers of power, making him a formidable opponent.

Voters are selecting a president, two houses of parliament and, in the main republic Serbia, local administrations. Early results are expected by Sunday evening but it is unclear when definitive trends will be available.

The Democratic Opposition of Serbia, the main anti-Milosevic coalition, said that by noon Sunday, turnout was about 30 percent.

In the Kosovo village of Gracanica, voting was delayed briefly because of a dispute between the opposition Serbian Radical Party and Milosevic’s followers over who would be permitted to cast ballots.

Radical Party member Miladin Milanovic stormed out of the village school where voting was underway, complaining that refugees and displaced people would not be allowed to vote. “They are only allowing (pro-Milosevic) Communists to vote,” he said.

In Caglavica, one of Kosovo’s best-known Serbs, Momcilo Trajkovic, was refused permission to vote because officials claimed his name was not on the registration list. Trajkovic, a supporter of Kostunica, accused the Milosevic government of manipulating the balloting.