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Serbia holds most important vote since Milosevic PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 12 May 2008

AFP, BELGRADE - Serbia voted Sunday in general elections that give its people the stark choice of entering or abandoning the European Union in a rebuff to the West after the trauma of losing Kosovo, their historic heartland.

The latest surveys gave the ultra-nationalist Radical Party voter support of 34 percent, one point ahead of a pro-European alliance gathered around 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.

More than 6.7 million voters -- including more than 115,000 Serbs in Kosovo, the tense Albanian-majority province which broke away from Serbia in February -- will elect 250 parliamentary deputies, as well as local councillors.

Polling stations throughout Serbia opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) and remain open until 8:00 pm (1800 GMT). Early result estimates are expected two hours later.

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 European Union after most EU nations recognised Kosovo's independence.

"The May 11 elections are a form of referendum at which citizens will decide on whether or not Serbia ... will be a member of the European Union," Tadic said in a pitch to voters at the end of a spiteful campaign.

But Radicals' leader Tomislav Nikolic insisted that the EU "must recognise that Kosovo is Serbia."

"Tell us that Kosovo belongs to Serbia and you will have a friend here, otherwise, there are no friends for you here," Nikolic told the final campaign rally.

The parliamentary and local elections will also be held in Kosovo despite opposition from the United Nations and Kosovo Albanians, who see the local polls as an illegal 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 February 17.

Since then, about 40 countries led by the United States, Australia, Canada, Japan and most of the 27-nation European Union have recognised Kosovo, fuelling 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 what most Serbs consider their medieval heartland.

Besides the issue of Kosovo, politicians have also promised better living standards, a key concern in Serbia which is still impoverished after years of economic sanctions for its policies during the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

"I just want to live a normal life, to make plans for future, not to survive from day to day," said Ljubinka Josic, a 34-year-old teacher whose salary of 300 euros (460 dollars) barely meets her monthly needs.

For years the strongest single force in Serbia's 250-seat parliament, the Radicals are counting on people's dissatisfaction with the painful economic transition.

They are again likely to remain short of an outright majority following Sunday's elections.

However this time they appear set to form a coalition government with Kostunica's nationalist Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), which has fiercely opposed the independence of Kosovo.

The pro-Europeans headed by Tadic's Democratic Party (DS) may have gained a few popularity points after signing a pre-membership accord -- the Stabilisation and Association Agreement -- with the European Union in late April.

"People are eager for changes and our victory will be impressive," Rasim Ljajic, a Muslim leader aligned with the DS, said after casting his ballot in southern Serbia.

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 whose leader Cedomir Jovanovic negotiated his arrest in 2001.

The vote will be monitored by more than 2,000 local observers, as well as several international delegations, including representatives of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe

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