Serbians began voting Sunday in a general election that is likely to return pro-European Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic to power, but also give a voice in parliament to the pro-Russian far-right.
While Vucic’s nominally conservative Serbian Progressive Party is projected to win about half of the votes, ultra-nationalists who want the Balkan country to deepen its alliance with Russia, instead of Europe, are also expected to win seats.
“These are elections for the future of Serbia. We will not allow a return to the dark times which we believed were long gone,” Vucic told supporters at his final rally in Belgrade on Thursday.
With the early election marking Serbia’s third in four years, voters in the country of seven million people appeared unenthusiastic as they stood in line at polling stations, which opened at 7.00 am (0500 GMT).
“We have elections too often,” said retired Jelica Nikolic, 68, in Belgrade, who said she and her husband Radomir were voting more out of duty than conviction.
“I hope that these elections will bring real change,” said Damir Urosevic, a 41-year-old doctor, after voting in the capital.
Vucic, who hopes to lead Serbia into the European Union, said the election was needed for him to have a clear mandate to press ahead with the reforms required to join the 28-member bloc.
Choosing the past would make Serbia “a European leper again”, he told a local television station on Thursday, in a reference to Serbia’s isolated status during the 1990s regime of strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
The 46-year-old premier was once a close ally of Milosevic but has remodelled himself as a pro-European reformist.
Critics however see the vote as an attempt to consolidate his power, expressing concerns about his authoritarian tendencies including curbs on media freedom.
The country opened the first formal stages in EU accession negotiations in December, although Brussels has said there will be no further enlargement until 2020.
Vucic’s current Socialist coalition partners are trailing him in second place in opinion polls, while fragmented centrist and liberal opposition groups are expected to just about cross the parliamentary threshold.
– Return of pro-Russians –
Pro-Russian, far-right groups are expected between them to garner around 10 to 15 percent of the vote after several years without seats in parliament.
All eyes are on ultra-nationalist Vojislav Seselj, leader of the Serbian Radical Party, who was recently acquitted by UN judges of war crimes charges arising from the 1990s Balkan wars.
“Serbia will be safe only if it aligns with Moscow, which has always helped us and never bombed us,” Seselj said at his final rally in the northern city of Novi Sad, referring to the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo war.
“Serbia can expect nothing good from the EU,” he said.
Although a victory is out of reach for the Radicals, Serbia’s low living standards and high unemployment rate, plus Western demands to streamline the inefficient state sector, may endear nationalists to some discontented voters.
Fellow Slavic and largely Orthodox Christian Russia is seen as a supportive big brother figure by many in Serbia, and Vucic treads a fine line between his friendships to the east and west.
He said at his final rally that he aimed to “go towards Europe but without jeopardising our relations with Russia for a single second”.
Russia’s positive image stems partly from its support on controversial issues such as Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, declared in 2008, which has been recognised by more than 100 countries but is denied by Moscow and Belgrade.
Voting closes at 8.00 pm, with the first results expected before midnight.