( dpa ) - After a sluggish start, Serbs on Sunday responded with a "tremendous turnout" in a presidential election pitting a pro- European incumbent against an isolationist, ultra-nationalist challenger.
A whopping 48.1 per cent of the 6.7 million registered voters had already cast their ballots by 17:00 pm (1800 GMT), overshooting the total turnout in the 2004 presidential first-round vote with three hours still to spare.
"The turnout is tremendous," said the chief analyst of the private Centre for Free and Democratic Elections (Cesid), Zoran Lucic. At the current rate, the final turnout may be close to two-thirds, which is very high for Serbia.
The outcome of the race in which the incumbent Boris Tadic is running against opposition leader Tomislav Nikolic will serve as an indicator of whether Serbia wants to continue moving Westward or to turn the other way in anger over United States and European Union support of independence for Serbia's province Kosovo.
Pollsters predicted that Tadic and Nikolic are certain to go into the run-off on February 3, as neither has a realistic chance of winning more than 50 per cent of the votes cast and none of the remaining seven candidates expected to win more than 4 per cent.
Surveys gave Nikolic, who wants Serbia to ice relations with countries backing the independence of Serbia's breakaway province Kosovo - effectively the entire West - a slight, 21-19 per cent edge over Tadic ahead of the first round.
The run-off in two weeks would also be close and may be decided by a few hundred thousand of the 6.7 million eligible votes, pollsters said. A higher turnout favours Tadic, while apathy is likelier to swing the outcome Nikolic's way.
The conservative Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica - who is in an uneasy coalition with Tadic's Democratic Party but is politically closer to Nikolic's Serbian radical Party - has so far refused to support either of the frontrunners.
Tadic had already defeated Nikolic in the run for the five-year term in 2004. A new election was called a year early because Serbia adopted a new constitution in 2006.
Between the two rounds of voting in Serbia, the EU is to decide on its response to the imminent declaration of independence by the majority Kosovo Albanian leadership.
Western powers nudged the Kosovar leadership not to proclaim independence until after the Serbian presidential run-off in order not to damage Tadic's chances by outraging the Serbs.