BELGRADE, YUGOSLAVIA — BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- The real purpose of next month's emergency parliamentary elections is to formally increase Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's hold on power.
Mr. Milosevic remains the most popular figure on the scene, although Serbia is in the grip of extreme poverty and astronomical inflation resulting from United Nations sanctions.
Despite the bleak picture, his confident aides already are giving the precise number of seats his Socialist Party will win.
Helping the manipulative genius in shaping public opinion is Serbia's notorious paramilitary leader Arkan (real name Zeljko Raznajtovic).
Arkan has transformed himself into the razzmatazz Michael Jackson-style candidate. Pop stars provide his glitter. Slick posters of his youthful, smiling face are everywhere.
His machine also is making sure of votes for his new Party of Serb Unity by offering 10 deutsche marks (equal to the average monthly salary) to every pensioner and by delivering sacks of food to villagers, a pre-Communist Balkan custom.
The Dec. 19 elections had to be called because of Vojislav "Red Duke" Seselj. In the last elections, a year ago, the self-styled duke could do no wrong. He was Mr. Milosevic's favorite.
Mr. Milosevic needed him. Mr. Seselj's fascist-style Radical Party, with its own equivalents of Brown Shirt thugs, scooped up the nationalist vote and blocked Milan Panic -- the Serbian-born American who wanted to bring in U.S.-style democracy -- from sweeping Mr. Milosevic out of power.
The problem was that Mr. Seselj got so many votes that Mr. Milosevic was forced into a coalition. Mr. Seselj's party won 27 percent, second only to the 40 percent for Mr. Milosevic's Socialists.
Worse was to come. Mr. Seselj began to forget that he was a Milosevic creation. He formed a shadow cabinet. He tabled a motion of no-confidence in Parliament and moved to revoke a law that gave Mr. Milosevic control over television. The television move, according to diplomats, touched a raw nerve.
Mr. Milosevic's main tool in manipulating events has been his hold over the shamelessly propagandistic Belgrade television, which is the sole source of information for most Serbs.
In the words of one diplomat, "People in Serbia have television sets instead of brains."
The strongman's retribution was swift. Parliament was dissolved, scores of Mr. Seselj's top aides have been arrested on charges of corruption in recent weeks, and there are hints that Mr. Seselj and his paramilitary colleagues could be handed over to a U.N. war crimes tribunal.
This year, the Milosevic favorite is Arkan.
With Mr. Milosevic's clear blessing, the feared boss of the "Tigers" paramilitary group (who has a criminal record and is wanted by Interpol) is running a smooth campaign to get himself and his new party elected.
Arkan might seem like the 1993 version of Mr. Seselj, but Mr. Milosevic has picked him carefully.
The poorly educated Arkan does not have the broad nationalist appeal of Mr. Seselj, a university professor who studied fascist organization and began to put his expertise into practice.
Arkan's popularity rating in the polls runs at about 5 percent, certainly not enough to give him ideas of challenging Mr. Milosevic, who hovers at just under 50 percent.
Although Arkan will be the main nationalist voice in the new Parliament, his main arena will be Kosovo, where he is running for a seat.
Mr. Milosevic needs him there. This Wild West region of southern Serbia is supposed to be the cradle of Serbian civilization.
Unfortunately, most of the people there are ethnic Albanians and want autonomy. The Kosovo Albanians are refusing to vote in what for them has become a repressive Serbian police state.
Without them, Arkan's election there is guaranteed. His platform includes plans to make all Albanian men ages 18 to 55 serve in his army. Those who refuse, he says, should move across the mountainous border to Albania.
Fifty years of communism in Yugoslavia has left people without any other political experience.
More than 100 parties, most without any serious organization, have assured that the opposition vote will be fragmented. Mr. Milosevic, in contrast, has inherited the old Communist machinery and understands that politics is organization and patronage.
The lack of political experience in those around him has helped Mr. Milosevic appeal to the vanity of other politicians. He has been able to set them up and knock them down almost at will, while he remains aloof and presidential. There are few doubts that Arkan eventually will follow Mr. Seselj.
Mr. Milosevic himself is not running, only his party. He made a single television appearance -- an interview with Serbian journalists in which he did not address the dire economic conditions, including inflation, the percentage of which is measured in the millions.
(One European embassy calculates inflation by the price of a McDonald's hamburger, which went from hundreds to trillions of dinars in a matter of months).
Instead, he appealed to Serbs to stand by their ethnic brothers in Croatia and Bosnia. He accused the outside world of trying to cut the Balkans up into small puppet states.