Serbians were voting for a new president today, with a nationalist, a pro-Western moderate and a business mogul leading a race that could determine whether the Balkan republic strengthens its Western ties or opts for renewed isolation.
Less than four years after ousting autocratic leader Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia is at a crossroads with its 6.5 million electorate divided between those disenchanted with political and economic reforms and those hoping their trouble-prone republic eventually joins the European Union.
Today’s ballot is the fourth attempt in nearly two years to fill Serbia’s top job, left vacant since late 2002 when a Milosevic ally stepped down to face a UN war crimes tribunal.
Topping pre-election polls was Tomislav Nikolic of the right-wing Serbian Radical Party, followed by Boris Tadic, chief of the pro-Western Democratic Party, and millionaire entrepreneur Bogoljub Karic.
No candidate was expected to win more than 50% of votes, leaving the top two contenders to compete in a runoff in two weeks.
More than 8,500 polling stations opened at 7am (6am Irish time) and were to close 13 hours later (7pm Irish time), with the first results expected late tonight.
The country has failed in three previous elections to produce a president because voter turnout was less than a legally required 50% – a provision that has since been dropped.
“I really hope we elect president this time,” said Marija Jorgovic, 54, a teacher, as she cast her ballot. “It was beginning to look really bad to have no president for so long.”
In an indication that turnout would be higher than usual, nearly nine percent of voters cast ballots in the first three hours, said the state electoral commission.
While all candidates have vowed to improve Serbia’s economy, marked by high unemployment and average monthly salaries of €250, campaign agendas have also focused on the Balkan wars in the 1990s under Milosevic’s leadership.
Nationalists have thrived on anti-Western sentiment that lingers from NATO’s bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo conflict.
Nikolic’s party once governed alongside Milosevic, and Nikolic has promised to dedicate any election victory to Milosevic, now on trial at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands.
Such a victory would push Serbia into renewed isolation and block US and other Western financial and political support for the impoverished republic.
As he cast his ballot, Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus said voters were choosing “whether their country will be isolated or open toward Europe.”
Upon voting at a municipal building in the new part of Belgrade, Nikolic said he expected an outright victory and predicted a political crisis and early parliamentary elections following his triumph.
“We did all we could to make sure that I win in the first round,” he said.
At the other end of the spectrum is Tadic, the soft-spoken and telegenic leader of the Democrats who has insisted he is the best choice if Serbia is ever to join the European Union.
The Democrats have spearheaded economic and political reforms since Milosevic’s ousting in 2000, but they lost parliamentary elections in December to conservative and centre-right groups. The Democrats are also recovering from last year’s assassination of Zoran Djindjic, their leader and Serbia’s first non-communist prime minister since World War II.
The ruling coalition’s candidate, former parliamentary speaker Dragan Marsicanin, had been running third in the polls until last week, when Karic overtook him.
Karic has cited his lucrative businesses – including a mobile telephone network, a bank, a large construction company and a television station – as proof he can revive Serbia’s economy.
Eleven other candidates include Ivica Dacic, of Milosevic’s Socialist Party, and Princess Elizabeth Karadjordjevic, a member of Serbia’s former royal family.