Mon, Jun 28, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Serbians vote in presidential poll

FOURTH TRY After two years without a president, voters had a choice between a reformist and a hard-line nationalist candidate in runoff seen as key to Western ties

REUTERS , BELGRADE

Tomislav Nikolic, left, presidential candidate of ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party casts his ballot in the runoff Serbian presidential elections as his wife Dragica, center, and son Branislav,right, watch in Belgrade yesterday.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Pro-Europe reformer Boris Tadic is favorite to beat hardline nationalist Tomislav Nikolic for the presidency of Serbia yesterday, in an election seen as the most decisive since Slobodan Milosevic fell four years ago.

The outcome could help determine whether Serbia, impoverished after years of wars and sanctions under Milosevic, faces renewed international isolation or builds closer ties with the West.

Low turnout among election-weary Serbs poses the biggest threat to Tadic of the center-left Democratic Party as Nikolic's supporters are more disciplined voters, analysts said.

But, "I expect victory for Tadic," said pollster Srdjan Bogosavljevic.

Nikolic's ultra-nationalist Radical Party is headed by Vojislav Seselj, who is an old Milosevic ally -- and like the former Serb strongman is detained by the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague on charges of war crimes against Muslims and Croats.

The election may bring down Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's government, as one coalition ally has threatened to quit if Nikolic becomes president. It could also have repercussions elsewhere in a region still volatile after 1990s conflicts.

"Nikolic is a nationalist who would want to see a Greater Serbia but Europe won't allow that," said pensioner Stojan Brkic, 70, as he cast a ballot for Tadic in central Belgrade.

"Europe would accept Tadic better," he said. "We must get linked to Europe, to live and work like Europeans."

The Radicals, who came first in December's parliamentary poll but failed to get into power, have benefited from widespread anger over hardship linked to a difficult transition to a market economy.

"The state is being sold out to a small group of newly rich businessmen," said car mechanic Slobodan Vukovic, 53. He voted for Nikolic, saying he was a man who kept his word and did not make empty promises like other politicians.

Nikolic says he wants to develop relations both with the West and the East and that he will meet Serbia's international obligations, rejecting charges his policies would turn it into a pariah in the world.

Nikolic, 52, and Tadic, 46, advanced from a field of 15 in a first round of voting two weeks ago, Nikolic polling 30.4 percent and Tadic 27.6 percent, forcing a run-off between them.

Tadic boosted his chances by securing the support of Kostunica, a conservative whose own candidate finished a distant fourth, and of third-placed tycoon Bogoljub Karic. The latest opinion poll gave him a 54 to 46 percent lead over Nikolic.

The election is the fourth since 2002 to pick a new president after three previous attempts failed because of low turnout. The turnout threshold has since been scrapped.

Western powers clearly favor Tadic, hoping he will help end feuding among the pro-democracy politicians who toppled Milosevic and speed up stalled political and economic reform.

Nikolic as president might hurt Serbia's chances of one day joining the wealthy EU and also risks scaring off foreign investment, diplomats and analysts say. He opposes handovers of suspects to the UN court, a key condition for ties with the EU. His party also advocates a Greater Serbia encompassing Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia, even though it now says it should be achieved peacefully.

The election is closely watched in independence-minded Montenegro as well as in UN-run Kosovo, whose Albanians desperately want to break away from Belgrade. Both are tied to Serbia in a loose union that replaced Yugoslavia last year.

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