BUDVA, Yugoslavia - Faced with the strongest challenge in his 13 years in power, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is fighting for re-election in tomorrow's election amid Western and opposition fears that he will win the only way the polls say he can: through widespread vote fraud.
Milosevic is losing his hold on most Serbs, who had previously revered him as a national hero.
A relentless effort to silence opposing voices has left Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic, with almost no independent broadcasters, a constantly harassed and splintered opposition and leading politicians who fear for their lives.
Vojislav Kostunica, a former law professor and Serbian nationalist, has rallied a beaten-down people to become the front-runner in pre-election polls.
Milosevic's government says independent Serbian opinion polls, which show him 6 to 20 percentage points behind Kostunica, are part of a Western plot to destroy Yugoslavia.
Leading Serbian pollster Srdjan Bogosavljevic says he has counted up the votes, real and phony, that he believes Milosevic will be able to reasonably claim tomorrow and says the Yugoslav leader will fall short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff election early next month, probably against Kostunica. Two other candidates in the race are lagging far behind in the polls.
Bogosavljevic, who heads the Belgrade-based Strategic Marketing agency, said only blatant and obvious fraud would allow Milosevic to avoid a runoff.
U.S. expects fraud
Clinton administration officials have been vocal in their contention that fraud is likely in tomorrow's election.
The government's best opportunities for vote-rigging are in places closed to opposition monitors, such as army barracks, mental institutions and prisons, in the Serbian province of Kosovo and in Montenegro, Yugoslavia's smaller republic.
Milosevic, who has been indicted by an international tribunal on war-crimes charges, has signaled how he plans to rig the election by using phantom voters in Montenegro, whose pro-Western government is boycotting the poll, and in Kosovo, a senior U.S. official said in an interview from Washington.
Belgrade's official list of voters includes ethnic Albanians in Kosovo who for the most part have vowed to boycott the Yugoslav election. Their ballots are likely to be cast for them in favor of Milosevic, said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition he not be identified, noting the administration policy for diplomatic matters.
7.8 million voters
There are more than 1 million people in the province on the voter lists, and Kosovo has an estimated 100,000 Serbian residents. There are a total of 7.8 million people in Yugoslavia eligible to vote.
Bound by a United Nations Security Council resolution affirming that Kosovo is part of Yugoslavia, the U.N. administration in the province agreed to let Belgrade set up 300 polling booths. Peacekeepers led by NATO will provide security. Officials of the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe plan to monitor the vote.
That will make the United Nations and the Europeans accomplices in the fraud that probably will keep Milosevic in power, say Kosovo Albanians and other critics who question international efforts to protect Serbian voters.
U.N. role questioned
"They're going to need protection after what they've done to us. They wouldn't have the guts to come out and vote if someone wasn't guarding them," said Ramadan Prekopuca, 19, a hospital orderly in the Serbian enclave of Kosovo Polje. "What I don't understand is what the U.N. is doing in getting involved in an election it has said it doesn't recognize and doesn't support."
The Albanian majority in Kosovo will hold elections Oct. 28, and most people see tomorrow's election as an attempt by Belgrade to reassert sovereignty as the Kosovars strive for independence.
If no candidate takes more than 50 percent of the vote tomorrow and Milosevic survives as one of the two candidates in a runoff, he might seek to scare voters away from the second ballot to ensure a low turnout that would hurt the opposition, said Bogosavljevic, the pollster.
"With a little bit of electoral gymnastics," he said, Milosevic could declare himself the winner in much the same way he proclaimed Serbia's conquest of NATO after 78 days of bombing last year.
The big question is what Yugoslavia's Serbian majority will do about any fraud this time. Exhausted and cynical after a decade of a war, sanctions and Milosevic's heavy-handed rule, Serbs have gone to the streets in mass protest before, only to see their dream of democracy vanish in clouds of tear gas.
Polls favor opponent
Pre-election polls are often unreliable in an autocratic state where many people prefer to keep political opinions to themselves. But for the first time, poll after poll is telling Milosevic he will lose.
Milosevic's opponents in Serbia think supporters of independence in Montenegro and Kosovo want him in power because his indictment last year by International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia on charges stemming from his army's conduct in Kosovo leaves him in no position to defend Yugoslav sovereignty at, for instance, the Security Council.
Kostunica has promised that if elected he will not hand over Milosevic for prosecution in The Hague, Netherlands, even though Western leaders have said they would insist on a trial.
In July, Milosevic rewrote the constitution in a matter of hours to allow himself to run for re-election, this time by going straight to the people in a direct vote instead of being chosen by Parliament.
That left the United States and most European governments in the unusual position of urging Yugoslavs to vote in an election that might be neither free nor fair.
The hope, the U.S. official said, is that ordinary Yugoslavs will see for themselves what a fraud Milosevic has been all along and will get rid of him.