Serbians Try Again to Elect President

Serbians voted for a president for the third time in a year Sunday, hoping that the low turnout that caused two previous elections to fail would not happen again and cause a political crisis.

Dragoljub Micunovic (search), a veteran politician with strong democratic credentials backed by the governing Democrats and their allies, was leading pre-election polls against five other candidates.

His main rival, Tomislav Nikolic (search), an ultranationalist with ties to Slobodan Milosevic (search), is banking that disillusionment with the democracy will help his cause.

The last two elections foundered because turnout was below the 50 percent minimum, and pre-election polls indicated that failure was possible again Sunday due to opposition calls for a boycott and apathy among the 6.5 million eligible voters.

A failure of Sunday's vote would create a major political crisis.

Parliament was dissolved last week and early general elections were set for Dec. 28. If Sunday's elections failed, there would be no one to call a new vote because that task usually falls to the speaker of the now dissolved parliament.

Even if the turnout on Sunday passes the legal threshold, no candidate is likely to win outright by collecting at least 50 percent of votes cast. A runoff would be held in two weeks -- Nov. 30.

"I hope that Serbia will indeed elect a president this time," Micunovic said as he cast his ballot in a residential part of the capital.

Expressing confidence he would be the winner, Micunovic said that "a stable Serbia means stability for the whole region."

In the first hours of voting, most polling stations were quiet, with voters slowly trickling in. Election officials checked voters' identities, comparing them to the lists of the electorate.

The Belgrade-based Center for Free Elections and Democracy, whose monitors were present at a most of the 8,500 polling stations, said turnout reached 3.7 percent in the first two hours of voting, compared to 3 percent in the previous ballot.

"I didn't bother to vote the last two times," retired teacher Darinka Timotijevic, 66, said as came to a central Belgrade polling station early Sunday. "But it really is a shame for the state and all of us to not have a president."

Serbia and the much smaller republic of Montenegro form Serbia-Montenegro (search), which replaced Yugoslavia after it broke apart following a decade of war.

There are no more armed conflicts in the region, but the threat of instability remains.

In March, Serbia's first post-Milosevic prime minister, Zoran Djindjic (search), also the republic's first democratic leader since World War II, was assassinated, allegedly by crime bosses and Milosevic-era paramilitary commanders.

The post of president has been vacant since a Milosevic ally stepped down to join his former backer in The Hague, Netherlands, to answer charges before a U.N. court for alleged war crimes related to the recent Balkan conflicts.

Micunovic promises included further democratic reforms, closer ties with the West and stability based on economic progress.

Nikolic, of the pro-Milosevic Serbian Radical party, played the card of national pride and defiance of the West -- which he accuses of anti-Serb policies. He has pledged no more extradition of Serbs to the U.N. tribunal to answer charges of war crimes committed during last decade's Balkan wars fomented by Milosevic.

Four other candidates with little chance of winning are also running.