Voters in Serbia took to the polls yesterday in general elections seen as a referendum giving its people a stark choice between entering or abandoning the EU over Kosovo’s independence.
Polling stations throughout Serbia opened at 7am and would remain open until 8pm.
Early estimates of the results were expected two hours after the polls closed.
More than 6.8 million voters — including more than 115,000 Serbs scattered across Kosovo, the tense Albanian-majority province that broke away from Serbia in February — will elect 250 parliamentary deputies, as well as local councilors.
The latest surveys showed the ultra-nationalist Radical Party with voter support of 34 percent, one point ahead of a pro-European alliance gathered around Serbian President Boris Tadic.
The elections are seen as the most important in the eight years since democratic forces overthrew late autocratic president Slobodan Milosevic, whose regime the Radicals supported.
The vote was called in March after the year-old government of conservative nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica collapsed in a rift over ties with the EU after most member nations recognized Kosovo’s independence.
The parliamentary and local elections will be held in Kosovo despite opposition from the UN and Kosovo Albanians, who see the local polls as an attempt by Serbia to partition the breakaway territory.
The parliament of Kosovo, whose ethnic Albanians make up around 90 percent of its 1.8 million population, unilaterally declared independence on Feb. 17.
Since then, about 40 countries led by the US, Australia, Canada, Japan and most of the 27-nation EU have recognized Kosovo, fueling anti-Western anger, protests and violence in Serbia.
That anger has bolstered hardliners who want stronger ties with Russia, China, Arab and African nations instead of countries that have helped to carve off a region most Serbs consider to be their medieval heartland.
For years, the strongest single force in Serbia’s 250-seat parliament, the Radicals were again likely to remain short of an outright majority following the elections yesterday.
This time, however, they appeared set to form a coalition government with Kostunica’s nationalist Democratic Party of Serbia, which has fiercely opposed the independence of Kosovo.
The pro-Europeans headed by Tadic’s Democratic Party may have gained a few popularity points after signing the EU Stabilization and Association Agreement — a pre-membership accord — late last month.
Whichever party wins the race, it will need to form a coalition with at least one other party, including the Socialists founded by Milosevic and the Liberal Democrats.
Liberal Democrat leader Cedomir Jovanovic negotiated Milosevic’s arrest in 2001.
The vote was to be monitored by more than 2,000 local observers, as well as several international delegations, including representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.