Socialists claim lead despite fraud claim


Serbia's ruling Socialists claimed yesterday they had a 17 per cent lead in the second round of presidential elections and that the turnout of the electorate was above the 50 per cent minimum for a valid result.

The margin was confirmed by the nationalist challenger, Mr Vojislav Seselj's Radical Party (SRS) but it accused the Socialists of committing widespread fraud in the voting.

The Socialist candidate, Mr Milan Milutinovic, the Yugoslav foreign minister, was hand-picked as a proxy for the Yugoslav President, Mr Slobodan Milosevic.

Cesid, an independent voting monitoring organisation, said: "There is no part of Serbia that we can single out for more or less fraud because it was so widespread."

The Radicals and other monitors including Cesid accused the Socialists of organising the stuffing of ballot boxes and multiple voting.

Western countries had feared a Seselj victory because of his opposition to the Bosnian peace agreement and to co-operation with the outside world.

Opposition parties and leaders of the 1.2 million ethnic Albanian voters in the southern province of Kosovo boycotted the vote because it did not meet their demands for democratic reforms of the election process.

Mr Seselj, who came from behind to defeat the Socialist candidate, Mr Zoran Lilic in October, warned the authorities not to try to rig the vote in favour of Mr Milutinovic, a close ally of the Yugoslav President.

"We will recognise no manipulation of theirs, no forgery at all," he said.

Mr Seselj claimed in October that he was cheated by election officials setting the turnout at under 50 per cent to prevent him gaining the presidency, held by the Socialists and their Communist predecessors without a break since the end of the second World War. As president, the nationalist party leader would be a potentially dangerous challenger to the authority of Mr Milosevic, who was forced by the constitution to relinquish his Serbian power base last July.

Mr Milosevic already suffered one setback when a reformist foe, Mr Milo Djukanovic, won the presidency of Montenegro, Serbia's partner in the Yugoslav federation.