Memories of old Serbia revived by election fraud row

Fri, May 18, 2012, 01:00

CHALLENGER Tomislav Nikolic may not win, but he can sure spoil the party as Boris Tadic bids for a new term as president of Serbia and the right to lead the country into talks on joining the EU.

For the third time since 2004, reformist Tadic is poised to defeat Nikolic in Sunday’s run-off, giving him five more years at the helm of Serbia as it slowly sheds the legacy of Slobodan Milosevic and the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia.

But an acrimonious row over alleged election fraud and talk of a “fight” to defend the vote has revived memories of the dark days of a divided Serbia under Milosevic and threatens to overshadow a Tadic victory.

Election authorities and foreign monitors found no evidence of the 500,000 votes Nikolic says were forged in parliamentary and first-round presidential elections on May 6th. But he is threatening to call supporters onto the streets anyway, dumping on the steps of parliament sacks of ballot papers he says were stolen from him and his rightist Serbian Progressive Party, the country’s biggest party.

Tadic (54) says his opponent, a former member of the ultra- nationalist Radical Party, is trying to undermine Serbian democracy and invent an excuse for his likely loss at the ballot box.

Tadic told the Serbian daily Kurir on Wednesday that the election “will decide the future and whether it will be safe and peaceful, or we will enter a period of instability and crisis”.

Nikolic’s Progressives narrowly won the May 6th parliamentary election, but face being locked out of government by a renewed governing coalition announced last week between Tadic’s Democratic Party and the third-placed Socialists, once led by Milosevic.

Their uneasy alliance, in power since 2008, has a patchy record on reform but has kept the country edging towards the EU, arresting and extraditing Bosnian Serb war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic and improving relations with Serbia’s ex-Yugoslav neighbours.

Nikolic has tried to rebrand himself from ultra-nationalist to modern, pro-European conservative. His conversion marked a watershed for Serbia, with the country’s main political forces converging around the common aim of EU membership. But he has struggled to convince voters of the change, and critics say the fraud row looks a lot like the Nikolic of old, a former disciple of war crimes suspect Vojislav Seselj and partner in government with Milosevic when Serbia was bombed by Nato in 1999.

“If they don’t drop this, and there’s no sign the Progressives will, then doubt will hover over Tadic’s government if his party forms the government – and most probably it will,” said Marko Blagojevic of Serbia’s Centre for Free Elections and Democracy.

Tadic has nurtured an image of a reliable, charming family man, a safe pair of hands after years of turmoil and poverty.

Nikolic was beaten by Tadic in the first round by less than 1 percentage point, but the incumbent has since won a flurry of endorsements from political allies.

A poll after the first round saw Tadic winning by 58 per cent to 42 per cent. – (Reuters)