The collapse of Serbia's presidential election and strong showing of an ultranationalist ally of Slobodan Milosevic are raising fears of major instability in the Balkan republic.
With its parliament dissolved and the reformist government practically ousted, Serbia plunged into a power vacuum Sunday as its third attempt to elect a president in just over a year failed because the turnout, at 39 percent, did not reach the 50 percent minimum required by the law.
The extreme nationalist candidate Tomislav Nikolic led the poll with 46 percent of the vote, while Dragoljub Micunovic, a pro-democracy veteran of the ruling Western-leaning coalition, trailed far behind with 35 percent, preliminary official results showed.
Four other candidates shared the rest of the vote.
The results were a major blow for the pro-Western authorities and a sign that Serbia might be sliding back toward the nationalism that led to a series of Balkan wars in the 1990s under Milosevic.
"This is a defeat for Serbia," said Micunovic, 73, who conceded defeat.
Deputy Prime Minister Zarko Korac said the results amounted to a "tragedy."
"We are entering a dangerous, dramatic phase," Korac warned. "This is an important message about whether our citizens still want integration into Europe and reforms."
Sunday's vote was considered a major test ahead of the Dec. 28 parliamentary election, which was scheduled last week after the government lost parliamentary support.
Serbia's reformist authorities, who ousted Milosevic in 2000 and later sent him to the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, have become a key US ally in efforts to stabilize the Balkans and aspire to join the EU. Any comeback of the pro-Milosevic forces would present a major setback for Washington and Europe.
The popularity of the pro-Western bloc has plummeted because of constant bickering among its leaders and poor living standards. Labor protests are on the rise, and people are generally dissatisfied.
Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic sought to dispel fears of instability. He conceded that the apparent defeat of the reformist bloc was the result of its disunity.
"We must not despair or allow for the reforms in Serbia to stop," Zivkovic said.