Head of Serbia's church urges voters to the polls in last-minute appeal

The head of the Serbian Orthodox Church on Saturday appealed to all voters in Serbia to cast their ballots in this weekend's repeat presidential election.

The last-minute call by Patriarch Pavle, who uses only one name, came in response to growing fears that the Sunday's election could again fail because of low voter turnout. At least half of voters must participate for the poll to be declared valid.

"We must not neglect our duties as citizens, nor may we allow ourselves to become indifferent to our own destiny," Pavle said in a message distributed to media.

Less than half of voters cast ballots in the previous election, held in October.

The Sunday election comes two years after reformist leaders toppled former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, now on trial for war crimes at the U.N. tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands.

"Every single vote is invaluable and of paramount importance," Patriarch Pavle wrote. "It may decide the final outcome of the election and determine the future of the people and the state."

Pre-election surveys have indicated not enough voters would show up on Sunday — an outcome that could lead to new political instability in Serbia, Yugoslavia's larger republic.

The main contender for Serbia's top post is Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, a law scholar known for his moderate nationalist stance. He faces two extreme-right candidates — Vojislav Seselj of the Serbian Radical Party and Borislav Pelevic, whose Serbian Unity Party was founded by late warlord Arkan.

Seselj's militia and Arkan's notorious Serb paramilitary troops fought in the 1990's Balkan wars.

The post of Serbia's president will gain in power as Kostunica's office of Yugoslavia's federal president is dismantled when the country transforms into a loose union called Serbia and Montenegro. The makeover is expected to be completed by early 2003.

The Patriarch wields considerable influence in Serbia, where most people are Orthodox Christian.

Pavle's messages to the nation during Milosevic's reign subtly reflected his anti-Milosevic stance and his support for the pro-democracy movement, which that ultimately ousted the former president in 2000.