"Poison pill" election rules left behind by Yugoslav nationalist strongmen are distorting the electoral process in the republics of the former Yugoslavia as they struggle to consolidate the reforms of the post-communist era.
Already prey to the phenomenon of multi-party political fragmentation, Croatia and Serbia are also dogged by the electoral legacies of their respective autocrats, Croatia's late Franjo Tudjman and Serbia's ousted Slobodan Milosevic.
Thanks to a law passed under Milosevic, which reformists have been unable to abrogate so far, Serbia has failed to elect a president in three ballots in the past 14 months, because the turnout has fallen short of a required minimum of 50 percent.
Under a convoluted electoral system decreed by Tudjman, some 400,000 ethnic Croats in the diaspora -- mostly citizens of neighboring Bosnia or living abroad -- are allotted up to 14 seats in a parliament of up to 160 seats.
In Sunday's Croatian general election, the nationalist right appeared to have defeated the incumbent center-left coalition, but uncertainty over the final outcome and possible alliances left the country guessing which side would really win.
One voter in Bosnia unconsciously summed up the political schizophrenia by saying he hoped the strong showing of the nationalists in Croatia would mean "higher wages" for him.
The Tudjman rule seems intended to ensure that hardline nationalists, even if not citizens, could sway the outcome. A required two-thirds majority to delete it from the Constitution has been attempted but never achieved by the center-left coalition which has governed since 2000.
Last week's presidential vote in Serbia fell short of a valid turnout in part due to the calculations of rival reformist parties that a boycott would trigger the 50 percent rule.
Former Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica and former liberal challenger Miroljub Labus both urged voters to stay home, thereby assuring the election's failure but allowing the ultra-nationalists to score a moral victory.
The boycotters' stratagem was to prevent the candidate of the incumbent reformist bloc from winning the presidency and so boosting its chances in a snap general election set for Dec. 28. Instead, it startled Western capitals and investors. Analysts said that the turnout rule gives a potential advantage to the more disciplined nationalist voters.
Around 20 parties are expected to enter Serbia's election. Efforts to abrogate the 50 percent rule have so far failed.
Eleven parties contested Sunday's Croatian election, from the Peasant Party to the Pensioners' Party and the misleadingly named Party of Rights, on the extreme right-wing fringe.
Votes for ultra-nationalists in these war-scarred republics tend to scare off investors and worry the EU, the wealthy bloc all parties claim they intend to join.
Croatian analyst Davor Gjenero on Sunday said the rising nationalist trend was again spreading through former Yugoslavia.
"This trend, which began in Bosnia, has affected Croatia and will definitely have an impact on Serbia-Montenegro," he said.