By the end of the day Sunday, Vojislav Kostunica and Miroljub Labus hoped that one of two would become the republic's next president. But low turnout early in the day made that outcome anything but certain.
Too few Serbs turned out to vote on Sunday
Serbs headed to the polls on Sunday for the second round of voting in the Yugoslav republic's presidential election. Though he gained a slight majority in the first round of voting, moderate nationalist incumbent Vojislav Kostunica did not earn enough votes to ensure victory against his liberal challenger, Miroljub Labus.
Having gained 31 percent of the votes in the first round of voting two weeks ago, Kostunica is the clear favorite going into Sunday's election. For his part, liberal economist Labus attracted 27 percent of voters. Both candidates -- the nationalist conservative Kostunica and the socially liberal Labus -- are considered democratic and reform-minded. The main difference between the two is that Kostunica is seeking a slower pace for reforms, with Labus championing a speedy course toward European Union membership.
On Sunday, however, election observers said turnout was low and expressed concern that fewer than 50 percent of voters would turn up at their polling stations. By early afternoon, six hours before the polls were to close, only 21 percent of the country's eligible voters had cast ballots, a spokesman for the Center for Free Elections and Democracy told the Associated Press.
But both candidates were holding out hope that one would become the republic's next president -- and that the results would stick.
A quick political honeymoon
Serb President Vojislav Kostunica
Before his election as Serb president in Sept. 2000, Kostunica (photo, right) was an obscure political figure in Yugoslavia. But the constitutional lawyer rose quickly to replace the despotic Slobodan Milosevic after he was deposed. The opposition coalition, DOS, won a clear victory in federal parliamentary elections the same year. Shortly after, they also won elections in the republic of Serbia.
Kostunica quickly established himself as a charismatic leader, with broad support of the Serbs. The flood of official state visits from Western diplomats soon followed.
But the country's honeymoon with Kostunica didn't last long. For months after the fall of Milosevic, Kostunica allowed former colleagues of Milosevic to remain in the army and intelligence services -- a development that irritated his coalition partners in the government as well as the international community. It took six months of internal wrestling before he finally agreed to deliver Milosevic to The Hague, where he was to stand trial for war crimes.
In summer 2001, a conflict also developed between Kostunica and his most important ally in the reform alliance, influential Serb Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. Kostunica's party left the DOS government coalition and turned very critical of it. Kostunica's party accused the government of having connections to Mafia-like organizations, of running criminal enterprises and of an expansive privatization program that was being carried out on the backs of the socially weak. Kostunica has regularly repeated these accusation against former ally Djindjic during his recent campaign.
The 58-year-old former law professor has sought to position himself in this election as the savior of national interests. He has fought to keep the province of Kosovo from declaring its independence from Yugoslavia and to maintain a federal union with the smaller republic of Montenegro.
Labus campaigns on economical know-how
Serb Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus
Kostunica's challenger, Miroljub Labus (photo), is currently Yugoslavia's deputy prime minister. The economist first joined the federal government two years ago as part of efforts to bring the country, which had been isolated for nearly a decade, back into the international community. He led successful negotiations with international financial institutions that paved the way for foreign investment in Yugoslavia after its conflict with NATO ended and also pushed forward with preparations for needed legal reforms.
In addition to his strong personal credentials, Labus also has a strong political team behind him. He is a co-founder of the influential group of experts, "G 17 plus," whose leading members hold crucial cabinet posts in the Serb government.
Labus is also a member of the party of Serb Prime Minister Djindjic, who has thrown in his support for Labus. But pollsters say support from the party has done little to bolster Labus as presidential candidate. Part of the problem lies in Djindjic, who is perceived as power hungry by many and is disliked for his governing style. Neither his coalition partners nor the public have much fondness for him. In fact, a number of Djindjic's former allies turned their backs on him during the presidential election and refused to support Labus, the candidate he endorsed.
Turnout could decide election
After the recent withdrawal of several smaller coalition partners in the DOS faction, the government no longer has a secure majority. New parliamentary elections are needed, but any decision over whether to hold early elections must be made by the newly elected president. Against that backdrop, Labus over the weekend appealed to voters to head for the polls in order to ensure 50 percent participation in the election. During the first round of elections last Sunday, voter turnout was a mere 55 percent. If fewer than 50 percent of eligible voters turn up at the polls, the election results will be disqualified.
"In my opinion, it is in the interest of this country that the elections do not get annulled," Labus said. "Of course, there are forces in whose interest clearly is to allow the country to sink into chaos. But independent of who wins, it is in the interest of Serbs to get a new president," he said.