Serbia election pits nationalism against West

BELGRADE – Serbia votes on Sunday in a presidential election pitting a pro-Western liberal against a nationalist in a vote seen as a plebiscite on Belgrade’s place in the world as it prepares for the loss of Kosovo.

Opinion polls show that neither hard-line challenger Tomislav Nikolic nor pro-Western incumbent Boris Tadic has the outright majority needed for a first-round victory, and both must woo undecided voters ahead of a February 3 run-off.

The president’s post has little power, but the vote will express the national mood as the Albanian majority in the southern province of Kosovo looks set to win independence with Western backing.

The election could also be a referendum on future ties with the European Union.

“Serbia is once again at a historical crossroads,” the Danas daily said in an editorial. “On Sunday we choose between two roads that have nothing in common.”

Nikolic is expected to take 33 percent of the first-round vote, with Tadic around 30 percent. The three main runners-up are seen at six percent each.

Half of the 6.5 million electorate are expected to abstain, reflecting disappointment with politics only seven years after the fall of nationalist autocrat Slobodan Milosevic took Serbia out of isolation and into a bumpy post-socialist transition.

“I wouldn’t be ready to put my money on anyone right now,” said pollster Marko Blagojevic of the CESID think tank. “The decisive vote is going to be the second round on February 3.”

He said both Nikolic and Tadic had promised to address Serbs’ main concerns: living standards, wages and jobs.

“They’re not that different, both promise a better life, but the ways they plan to achieve that differ,” Blagojevic said.

Nikolic has softened his nationalist rhetoric to attract moderates and draws on the mass of ‘transition losers’ who long for the socialist safety blanket of the Yugoslav era.

He is uncompromising on the issue of Kosovo and thinks Serbia must balance between East and West, being a partner to both the EU and Russia and getting maximum benefits from both.

Tadic rejects Kosovo’s breakaway but also wants to improve ties with the West and clinch European Union membership, despite the bloc’s support for Kosovo’s independence ambitions.

“Getting closer to the EU makes Serbia stronger,” he said last month. “Only a strong Serbia can protect its interests on Kosovo. Giving up the European road is giving up Kosovo.”

HORSE-TRADING

Kosovo, seen by Serbs as their heartland, has been a United Nations protectorate since 1999, when NATO expelled Serb troops accused of atrocities while fighting a guerrilla war.

Indications by the U.S. and most EU member states that they will recognize Kosovo as independent within months have irked Serbs who feel the country has paid enough for its role in the wars of the 1990s, and could win nationalists more votes.

With the Sunday race so tight, both Nikolic and Tadic will be looking at the showing of the minor candidates and preparing for two weeks of alliance-building and horse-trading.

Most supporters of liberal, pro-Western candidate Cedomir Jovanovic are likely to vote for Tadic, while Nikolic would get the votes of Milutin Mrkonjic, of Milosevic’s once mighty Socialist Party.

The wild card is Velimir Ilic, who enjoys the backing of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.

Although allied with Tadic in government, Kostunica has backed a separate candidate in order to win concessions from his coalition partner in return for support in the second round.

The PM is pushing for a hard line against the EU over Kosovo and favors closer political and economic ties with Moscow.

Giving up his pro-Western stance in return for Kostunica’s support could cost Tadic votes, so for now he is trying to rally voters by warning of the dangers of a Nikolic victory.

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