Serbian president Boris Tadic today called on pro-democratic parties to put differences aside and quickly form a coalition government to stave off gains made by ultranationalists in the weekend parliamentary election.
The formation of a government has taken on added urgency because a UN envoy is expected later this week to deliver his recommendations on whether the southern Serbian province of Kosovo should become independent.
It is not clear if that report, which is expected to be given to diplomats involved in the negotiations, will immediately be made public.
Reflecting the sense of urgency, the politician considered most likely to become the prime minister designate in a pro-Democracy coalition government, Bozidar Djelic warned that releasing the report before the formation of a new government would only bolster the ultranationalists further.
The report is widely expected to recommend some form of conditional independence for Kosovo - and if so, would surely become an even greater rallying point for nationalists opposed to giving up the territory.
Besides that explosive issue, other weighty points of debate likely to bog down coalition talks include the long-sought detention of suspected war criminals, as well as Serbia's prospects for ending years of isolation and edging toward membership in the European Union.
"The new government has to be formed as soon as possible," said Tadic, whose Democratic party won the most votes within the pro-democracy bloc.
"I will offer a premiership mandate to the one who has a best chance to gain a majority in the new parliament."
The Radicals, loyal to the ideas of the late Slobodan Milosevic and staunchly opposed to Kosovo's independence, won 28.3% of yesterday's vote, the state electoral commission said today. But that was not enough for the hard-line party to govern alone, and hence there is a race by the pro-democracy camp to unite and form a government.
Who will get the post of premier is expected to be one of the most contentious issues in forming a new Cabinet.
The Radical leader, Tomislav Nikolic, said today that Tadic should offer his "strongest party" a mandate to form a government. "But, I know he won't do it," Nikolic said, predicting new elections by the end of the year because "the so-called Democrats cannot agree on anything, let alone the new government".
The current prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, whose centre-right Popular Coalition came in third in the polls - allowing him a kingmaker role in the formation of a ruling coalition - insists on retaining the influential post.
President Tadic's Democrats, who were second after the Radicals, want the post for themselves.
Tadic's Democratic Party gained 22.6%, and the centre-right Popular Coalition led by Kostunica had 16.3%, according to official results with about 70% of ballots counted.
Challenges facing the next government include Western demands for the arrest of fugitive wartime Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic and the dispute over Kosovo, where a predominantly ethnic Albanian population seeks independence over the strong opposition of most Serbs.
Bozidar Djelic, a Harvard-educated economist who as the Democrats' nominee is likely to become the prime minister designate, said that the presentation of the UN's Kosovo proposal comes at a bad time for Serbia's pro-democracy forces.
"It is absolutely crucial for the international community to wait for the formation of a new democratic government before further discussions on the future of Kosovo," Djelic told The Associated Press in an interview.
"An instant solution on Kosovo's independence would have devastating consequences for the forming of a pro-democratic government and would only encourage extreme nationalists," Djelic said.
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. The report by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari is meant to resolve the lingering disputes over Kosovo's future status.
Kostunica's government has pursued Western-advised reforms and has sought closer relations with the EU. But it has failed to arrest Mladic, sought by the UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which is based in The Hague, Netherlands.
Tadic has pledged that if his Democrats lead Serbia's new government, it will work harder 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.
Djelic said that if he becomes the next prime minister, his government "will do everything in our power to convince the international community that we are serious about capturing Mladic".
Meanwhile, an election monitoring mission by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said today the vote was "free and fair" and "in line with international standards".