Serbs vote heavily in "make-or-break" election

Serbs flocked to vote at a record pace in snap parliamentary elections Sunday, choosing between pro-Europeans and nationalists in a ballot seen as crucial to the country's future, dpa reported.

Some 6.75 million Serbs were eligible to choose from 22 tickets, but the real choices was between an anti-European bloc led by the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) and President Boris Tadic's pro-EU Democratic Party (DS).

Pre-election polls gave the Radicals a slight lead, suggesting that Serbia was headed for a turn away from the West.

Less than three months after Kosovo's secession inflamed political infighting in Serbia and forced the early election, the vote was being closely watched by European Union officials and the Balkan nation's neighbours.

Reflecting the stakes, nearly 10 per cent of the electorate had turned out by 10 am, three hours into the vote, the highest turnout in any Serbian parliamentary poll, the central election commission said in Belgrade.

Long queues formed at many polling stations even before voting started on a bright, sunny morning.

"I think this time it's really make-or-break," said Belgrade voter Gordana, 35, who gave only her first name. "All our elections have been 'crucial,' but this time I'm afraid the world is really willing to lock the door and throw away the key."

Outgoing Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica is expected to remain the next government's kingmaker despite his Democratic Party's (DSS) dwindling popularity, with the late Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) in tow.

Analysts tipped a coalition of Radicals, DSS and Socialists as the most likely outcome.

Kostunica has become openly hostile to the West, including the European Union, over its support of Kosovo's independence. The Albanian-dominated province declared itself free from Serbia in February.

Quick recognition by leading Western countries and EU aid to Kosovo prompted Kostunica to freeze Serbia's progress toward EU membership, which brought down his coalition with Tadic after only 10 months.

Both Kostunica and SRS leader Tomislav Nikolic say they will not allow Serbia to negotiate membership with Brussels until Western nations retract their recognition of Kosovo - meaning never.

Nikolic insists that Serbia would avoid isolation because it could turn its economy toward partners like Russia, China and India. He has sought to reassure foreign investors that they would still be welcome.

Tadic and his allies warned voters that Serbia risked losing EU development aid and billions of dollars in foreign investment, leading to economic decline and isolation.

Serbia's hopes for moving toward Europe hinge on the ratification of a pre-membership Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) by the next parliament - with Kostunica and Nikolic vowing to annul it.

After casting his ballot in Belgrade, Nikolic continued to woo Kostunica to quickly start negotiating with him and to "finally form a good government with the SRS."

Representatives of Serbia's lame-duck government signed the SAA on April 29 with Tadic present, prompting outraged charges by the nationalist camp that he was selling out the homeland and in effect recognizing Kosovo's independence.

In another EU attempt to bolster Serbia's pro-Europeans, 17 European countries agreed five days before the election to end visa fees for most Serbs - a first step toward eventual visa-free entry.

Tadic's DS is unlikely to win enough votes to form a majority with the pro-European Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP), expected to be the fifth and final party clearing the 5-per-cent hurdle of votes cast to qualify for parliament.

First estimates of the outcome are expected from agencies processing a sample of polling stations a few hours after the voting ends at 8 pm (1800 GMT).

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