Serbian leaders welcome early polls

( dpa )- Serbian politicians almost unanimously welcomed Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's decision to call early May 11 parliamentary elections, heralding a hard, dirty two-month campaign.

Kostunica on Saturday declared that his cabinet was at its end, after failing to agree a common policy for Kosovo, Serbia's province which declared independence last month.

He said he lost confidence that his coalition partners, President Boris Tadic's Democratic Party (DS) and the reformist G17, were "honestly" trying to keep Kosovo Serbian.

Unlike Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and the ultra- nationalist opposition, DS and G17 want the country to remain on a path leading it to European Union membership despite Western support for Kosovo's independence.

Tadic said he would schedule the polls when Kostunica asks him to do it. If the elections are to be held on May 11, they must be scheduled on Monday, exactly at the 60-day legal deadline.

"I accept the premier's position and will schedule the elections when I get the cabinet's decision to dissolve the parliament," Tadic said.

Tadic however pointed out that DS and G17 also reject the secession of Kosovo, insisting that the split in the cabinet was caused by Kostunica's turn from the goal of winning EU membership.

Joining the EU was declared one of the top priorities of the ruling coalition when it was formed just 10 months ago, along with keeping Kosovo Serbian.

The G17 leader Mladjan Dinkic described the decision to call early polls as " honourable and democratic."

Tomislav Nikolic , head of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) which is the largest in the outgoing parliament and likely to win the most votes again, also said he favoured polls

It had been speculated that Kostunica, who unlike SRS and DS faces deteriorating public support, may turn to Nikolic and the late Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party (SPS) for a new ruling coalition.

Of all parliamentary parties' leaders, only SPS chief Ivica Dacic said that early elections were a bad idea, "leaving the country without institutions" at a bad time.

But his concern may also reflect the fact that SPS would have a hard time to collect the 5 per cent of the votes cast needed to qualify for the next assembly.

The campaign is, yet again, certain to focus on Kosovo, although the province is receding faster with each letter of recognition from a capital.

More than two-dozen nations, including the leading Western powers, established ties with Kosovo over the past three weeks.

Kosovo would dominate despite a host of other burning issues, such as stalled reforms, pressing inflation and unemployment, falling standard of life and threatening isolation.

The nationalist bloc, lined up behind Nikolic and Kostunica, would paint their rivals as traitors willing to sell Kosovo for membership of EU.

The pro-Europeans, with Tadic and Dinkic as leaders, would insist that if it turns away from EU, Serbia would return to isolation and economic decay.

The May 11 elections, now combining parliamentary with municipal polls, would so effectively be a referendum on Serbia's path.

"These are elections for Serbia's European future," the radically pro-European opposition Liberal Democratic Party chief Cedomir Jovanovic said.

However, the vote may actually again fail to provide a clear answer of what it is that Serbia wants, latest surveys indicated.

In early days, pollsters give the nationalist SRS a slight edge over DS with G17, but at the end of the day Kostunica may again, despite support hovering just around 10 per cent, emerge with the keys to a majority.

A month ago, between the two rounds of presidential elections, Tadic had trailed Nikolic , but won his second term in the office in an uncomfortably close run-off. It is questionable however how much of that momentum remained after the Kosovo split.

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