( dpa ) - With the secession of Kosovo looming and Belgrade's westward course in jeopardy, Serbs were warned that Sunday's presidential poll is not just a vote, but yet another fateful choice they are to facing.
Pollsters predicted a tighter-than-ever race with the two frontrunners certain to go into a nail-biting run-off on February 3, in which a few hundred thousands of the 4.6 million votes may decide the winner and indicate Serbia's course.
According to a survey released Wednesday, the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) leader Tomislav Nikolic would lead the pro-European Democratic Party (DS) chief and incumbent Boris Tadic into the second round.
Tadic's camp has highlighted the polarization, insisting that only he would keep Serbia on track to EU membership and that the vote was actually a referendum for or against closer ties with the West.
Tadic insists that Serbia must continue approaching EU even if its member-states recognize Kosovo, Serbia's breakaway province with a majority Albanian population, once it declares independence.
Groomed by a new PR agency, Nikolic has made an effort to tone down his trademark belligerent rhetoric, particularly when speaking of the EU, in a bid to lure voters other than the SRS faithful.
While he continues blasting at NATO, which keeps a presence in Kosovo as "occupiers," Nikolic recently said that while he also wants membership of EU, he would support it only if it does not support Kosovo's independence.
Overall, Kosovo has comprehensively dominated the campaign, allowing virtually no serious talk by the top candidates on any other issue, economic, political or social.
The Centre for Free and Democratic Elections (Cesid) predicted that Nikolic would win 21 and Tadic 19 per cent of the votes cast amid a turnout of up to 67 per cent.
None of seven other candidates has a chance of reaching the run- off, where the outcome would strongly depend on the turnout, Cesid analysts said. The survey, conducted on 1,502 respondents in December, had a 2-per-cent margin of error.
Cesid, a private agency which has been monitoring all polls in Serbia over the past decade, said that a turnout lower than 3 million in the run-off would likely lead to Nikolic's victory, while Tadic would almost certainly win on a turnout higher than 3.3 million.
Serbia's Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica could effectively seal the election in advance, but he has so far kept to himself.
The conservative Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) is in coalition with Tadic's DS, but may be politically closer to Nikolic - who however still has the status of the pariah, since he and SRS were a major part of Slobodan Milosevic's regime.
"Kostunica could decide the winner by telling his 300,000 voters whom to back," Cesid's chief researcher Srecko Mihajlovic told a press conference.
But Kostunica, who opposed the scheduling of the elections until after the Kosovo issue is resolved, may back neither of the rivals and wait out a deal with the winner, observers say.
He already once cashed in on his position between SRS and DS and retained the position of the prime minister though DSS emerged as only the third-strongest in elections a year ago.
"I think he will mildly support one of the candidates, then charge the service. He can do it, because he is in that position," analyst and political sciences professor Zoran Stoiljkovic said.
So, though the president has a largely ceremonial authority in Serbia, the election could signal the country's course in more ways than by installing a pro-Western or a xenophobic head of state.
Some time after the elections run-off, Kosovo Albanian leadership is expected to declare independence from Serbia. The US and the vast majority of EU countries will recognize the new country.
With Nikolic as president and, after a series of lost polls, a winner, Kostunica may more easily drop Tadic and DS to make good of his threat to halt Serbia's approach to EU.
Should Tadic defend his office, Kostunica may because of his dwindling support yet again be forced to side with Tadic, whose unconditioned pro-EU policy he obviously finds distasteful.