Serbs flock to vote for president and on Europe

Politics Materials 3 February 2008 23:33 (UTC +04:00)

( dpa )- Voting has ended Sunday in a tense presidential election run-off pitting the pro-European incumbent Boris Tadic against the nationalist challenger, Tomislav Nikolic .

Serbs turned out at a record pace, reflecting the referendum-like mood - though the president has mostly ceremonial duties, the outcome would signal which way voters want their country steered.

Nearly 63 per cent of the 6.7 million registered voters had cast their ballots with one hour remaining, the private election- monitoring agency Cesid said.

The final showing is to overshoot by a wide margin the 61 per cent from the first round two weeks ago.

Four years ago, after a series of attempts at electing a president failed owing to voter apathy, Serbia was forced to scrap a legal minimum turnout requirement of 50 per cent.

That time, in June 2004, Tadic defeated Nikolic in the run-off 53 to 47 per cent on a lowly 47 per cent turnout. But this time the stakes are higher as Serbia has been wavering on its European path.

In this year's contest, Nikolic won 40 per cent to Tadic's 35.5 per cent of the votes in the first round on January 20, but polls conducted between the two votes gave Tadic a razor-thin edge of less than 1 per cent.

Tadic says that Belgrade must remain on course to join the EU even if leading Western nations back the looming secession of Serbia's province Kosovo. " Serbia is without doubt on its way to full membership of the EU," he said after casting his ballot Sunday.

Tadic's opponent Nikolic leads the opposition Serbian Radical Party, the largest force in parliament and a key part of the former regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

He says Belgrade should freeze its relations with the West if it recognizes an independent and would instead seek closer ties with powers such as Russia and China.

Serbia is "much closer to Russia, to a partner that does not impose conditions and can enable our development," Nikolic said after voting in Belgrade.

Nikolic led Tadic in the first-round vote on January 20 by more than 4 per cent, but pollsters estimated that Tadic has a slight advantage in the decisive vote on Sunday.

The difference is, however, expected to be slight - some reports said that it could be less than 1 per cent and that the election may be decided by as few as 20,000 votes.

Conservative Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica refused to back either his uneasy ally Tadic or opposition leader Nikolic with whom he stands closer in terms of Serbia's Kosovo and European policy.

Polling ended at 8 pm local time (1900 GMT). Early, partial results are normally expected within a few hours, but projections may this time be delayed or omitted if the result turns out to be as close as anticipated.