Independent monitors said an ally of late autocrat Slobodan Milosevic had edged ahead of the pro-Western incumbent in Serbia’s presidential election today, but failed to win an outright majority – forcing the two into a run-off.
Belgrade’s Centre for Free Elections and Democracy, which independently counted votes alongside election officials, said Radical Party leader Tomislav Nikolic had received about 39% of the first-round vote, compared with incumbent Boris Tadic’s 35%. A run-off is scheduled for February 3.
Official results were not expected until later today, but Nikolic's and Tadic's camps each issued results similar to the independent monitors', and both said they were preparing for the run-off.
“We can conclude that there will be a run-off,” said Zoran Lucic, an official of the independent monitoring group. “The run-off will be extremely tight.”
The vote could determine whether the troubled Balkan nation will move closer to the European Union or sink back into isolation similar to that of the era of late autocratic leader Slobodan Milosevic.
Nikolic was triumphant.
“Serbia has shown that it wants a change,” he said after the vote. “We have the basis for a victory in the second round. We were never closer to a final victory. No one can stop us.”
Looming over the vote was the expected declaration of independence next month by the separatist Kosovo province – Serbia’s medieval heartland and now dominated by pro-independence ethnic Albanians.
More than 100,000 people were allowed to vote in Kosovo, where balloting was organised only in Serb-held municipalities. Ethnic Albanians have boycotted Serbian elections since the early 1990s.
The monitoring group said that, nationwide, 61% of Serbia’s 6.7 million eligible voters had cast ballots – the largest turnout since 2000, when Milosevic lost power, and more than in 2004, when Nikolic edged ahead of Tadic in the first round, but lost in a runoff.
Nine candidates ran in the election, but only Tadic and Nikolic were considered serious contenders.
Telegenic and soft-spoken, Tadic advocates Western-style reforms and integration into the European Union, after more than a decade of isolation and wars under Milosevic.
“This election decides which path Serbia is going to take and what is the future for Serbia and our children,” Tadic said after casting his ballot, predicting a runoff. “I’m very optimistic about the final outcome of this vote.”
His campaign had cast the election as offering citizens a choice between a “road ahead and an errant road” back into isolation.
Nikolic, on the other hand, has sought to evoke Serbs’ nationalist pride and has played on the growing frustration over US and EU backing for Kosovo independence.
A Milosevic ally, Nikolic ruled alongside the former president in the 1990s. His return to power likely would bury Serbia’s EU aspirations and push the country back into isolation.
Serbia’s presidency is formally a ceremonial post, though it gained in importance and influence under Milosevic’s virtually unrivalled rule in the 1990s.
The support for Nikolic reflects the mounting nationalism in Serbia over Kosovo, but also the dissatisfaction of Serbs with the pace of pro-Western reforms launched after the fall of Milosevic in 2000.
Both Tadic and Nikolic reject independence for Kosovo, but only Nikolic has promised tough measures against countries that recognise Kosovo’s statehood.