Polls close in Serbian elections

Serbs voted today in a closely-contested parliamentary election between pro-Western democrats and ultranationalists to determine whether the troubled Balkan nation drifts toward mainstream Europe or returns to its wartime nationalist past.

Serbs voted today in a closely-contested parliamentary election between pro-Western democrats and ultranationalists to determine whether the troubled Balkan nation drifts toward mainstream Europe or returns to its wartime nationalist past.

The vote was the first since the break up of Serbia’s union last year with Montenegro, its last partner from the former Yugoslavia that split up in wartime campaigns conducted under late Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s.

Turnout was 56.7% an hour before polls closed at 7pm Irish time, said CeSID, an independent Serbian polling group, showing strong interest among the 6.6 million strong electorate. Parties must receive a minimum 5% of the vote to enter the 250-member parliament.

Shortly after the vote, a UN plan for the future of Serbia’s breakaway Kosovo province is expected to be published.

The West fears that if the ultranationalist Radicals, who ruled Serbia together with Milosevic, emerge as outright winners, Europe could face another major crisis if Kosovo is given independence, as expected.

“We will win and make sure that Kosovo remains part of Serbia,” Serbian Radical Party leader Tomislav Nikolic said after he cast his ballot.

Challenging the Radicals in the vote were the Western-backed Democratic Party of President Boris Tadic and the centre-right Popular Coalition, led by current Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.

Tadic and Kostunica have lobbied internationally to keep Kosovo within Serbia’s border, offering broad autonomy to its majority ethnic Albanians who are seeking nothing but full independence.

Unlike the Radicals, the two have pledged to resolve the Kosovo crisis by peaceful means.

Kosovo has been an international protectorate since the 1998-99 war between Milosevic’s troops and separatist ethnic Albanians.

UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari is expected to present a proposal for Kosovo’s future to diplomats on Friday which many believe will include some sort of conditional independence.

In the vote, none of the top three groups was likely to win an outright majority to govern alone, surveys have shown. Analysts have predicted that a new Cabinet could be a coalition of Tadic’s and Kostunica’s parties, possibly backed by a few groups representing ethnic minorities.

But Kostunica, who headed Serbia’s government over the past three years, has not ruled out forming a coalition with the Radicals in order to stay in power.

Tadic said today that his Democrats would win most votes ”but will not be able to form a government alone”.

Kostunica’s government has pursued Western-advised reforms and has sought closer relations with the European Union. But it has failed to arrest fugitive General Ratko Mladic, sought by the UN war crimes court in The Hague, Netherlands.

Tadic has pledged that if his Democrats lead Serbia’s new government, it will work harder than Kostunica’s conservatives to arrest the Bosnian Serb wartime army commander, who has been indicted by the tribunal for a massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslims during the 1992-95 war there.

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