BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- A month ago, it seemed a foregone conclusion. Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic's aides were cockily giving the precise number of seats his Socialist Party would sweep, giving them a strong majority in today's parliamentary elections.
Now they're not so sure.
Arctic temperatures, which have brought new hardships to a people already in the grip of grinding poverty, seem to have highlighted the economic and foreign policy failures of the regime.
Mr. Milosevic still commands respect personally, but polls are showing his party's popularity declining rapidly. The outcome of last Sunday's elections in Krajina, the Serbian enclave in Croatia where Mr. Milosevic's candidates were resoundingly defeated -- has further alarmed Milosevic strategists.
Mr. Milosevic's party -- Communists reborn as Socialists -- is still expected to get the largest percentage of votes in Serbia, but nowhere near the 40 percent they got in similar elections a year ago.
While there is no doubt that Mr. Milosevic will remain Serbia's ruler, the formula by which he rules will have changed. He is not personally running. He will remain president with the power to dissolve Parliament or announce a state of emergency and introduce emergency rule.
The snap elections were called by Mr. Milosevic because the previous Parliament got out of hand and threatened a vote of no-confidence, despite his party's holding 101 of 250 seats.
This time, coalition partners supporting the Socialists are expected to be more malleable.
The most likely coalition partner will be the extreme nationalist party of Zeljko Raznatovic, a notorious warlord known as Arkan, whose glitzy campaign machine includes the leading figures of popular culture. Slick posters of his smiling ba-by face are everywhere. Arkan has paid the equivalent of $6 in German deutsche marks to every pensioner joining his new Party of Serb Unity and delivered sacks of food to villagers.
Arkan would replace the old coalition partner of Mr. Milosevic's party, the self-styled duke Vojislav Seselj. In elections last year, Mr. Seselj's extreme nationalist Radical Party scooped 27 percent, second only to the 40 percent of Mr. Milosevic's Socialists. Mr. Seselj began to consider challenging Mr. Milosevic. He formed a shadow Cabinet. He offered a motion of no-confidence in Parliament. So Mr. Milosevic called the snap elections and began a smear campaign to ensure Mr. Seselj's vote is considerably lower.
Arkan will be more pliable than Mr. Seselj. He does not have Mr. Seselj's education or nationwide appeal. Arkan is running in the Kosovo region, which is 90 percent Albanian. His election is guaranteed since the Kosovo Albanians are refusing to vote in what for them has become a Serbian police state.
With Arkan on his right, Mr. Milosevic is likely to tap another, potentially large segment of voters who hanker for the days of Communist dictator Marshal Tito. Organized by Mr. Milosevic's wife, Mirjana, the United Left party appeals to those nostalgic for the Tito era.
In case this scenario fails to give Mr. Milosevic a majority in the Serbian Parliament, the strongman has a few other coalition possibilities. "He is at his most inventive and brilliant when cornered," says Milosevic biographer Slavoljub Djukic.
One option is a government of experts headed by a Serbian-born businessman who became a millionaire in the west. The man approached by Mr. Milosevic's aides this time is Boris Vukobrat, the owner of a large oil importing business in France.
In an interview, Mr. Vukobrat confirmed he was approached and stated explicitly that he -- unlike Serbian-born American businessman Milan Panic, who served briefly as prime minister until Mr. Milosevic had him ousted -- would be prepared to work with Mr. Milosevic.
Another option is for Mr. Milosevic to give the mandate for a new government to Zoran Djindjic, the youthful leader of the Democratic Party, which is expected to win about 10 percent of fTC the seats. Mr. Djindjic, whose political differences with Mr. Milosevic appear marginal, would presumably form a government of national unity.
Differences between the Socialists and about 100 other parties regarding the crucial issues facing Serbia appear slight. All groups blame foreign countries for the dire economic conditions, which include a seven-digit inflation rate. All echo Mr. Milosevic's appeal to stand by Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia.
The only genuine opposition party is Vuk Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Movement. Mr. Draskovic is the only candidate to have openly condemned Mr. Milosevic's policies. There are clear indications that his block of small opposition parties has been dramatically gaining ground in the countryside.
Mr. Milosevic's main tool in manipulating events has been his hold over propagandistic Belgrade television, which is the sole source of information for most Serbians. It has been almost closed off to Mr. Draskovic and other opposition figures. Mr. Milosevic has also skillfully tapped Serbia's fierce nationalist pride, vowing to endure United Nations sanctions.
Fifty years of communism in Yugoslavia has left most of the population without any political experience. Mr. Milosevic, on the other hand, has inherited the old Communist machinery and understands that politics is organization and patronage.