Nikolic claims win in Serbian presidential poll


SERBIA’S POPULIST opposition claimed victory in a hard-fought presidential election run-off last night, as an unofficial count gave their candidate Tomislav Nikolic a slender lead over outgoing president Boris Tadic.

Pollsters said preliminary projections gave Mr Nikolic 49.4 per cent of votes, against 47.6 for Mr Tadic, raising the possibility of a new government loyal to Mr Tadic’s liberal allies having to work with a conservative president in Mr Nikolic, who for years was a radical nationalist.

“From tonight, Serbia has a new president – Tomislav Nikolic,” Aleksandar Vucic, a deputy of Mr Nikolic in the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), told supporters last night.

There was no immediate response from Mr Tadic’s party.

Though both candidates say they support EU accession, Mr Tadic warns that Mr Nikolic cannot be trusted to institute Brussels-backed reforms or maintain a solid relationship with western nations, after repeatedly advocating stronger ties with Russia and China.

“It is a very important day for Serbia and the five years ahead, because the future path of Serbia will be redefined,” Mr Tadic (54) said after casting his ballot. “I expect these elections are going to show once more that Serbia’s orientation towards the European Union is crystal clear.”

Opponents of Mr Nikolic, an ex-cemetery manager nicknamed “the undertaker”, say he still has a strong nationalist streak and they criticised his threat to mount street protests against what he claims was major fraud in the first round of voting.

Mr Tadic denies his rival’s claim that 500,000 votes were “stolen”, and monitors found no evidence to support it.

“This time we’ll watch every single polling station,” Mr Nikolic (60) said after voting. “Serbia does not deserve a president who is suspected of stealing.”

After narrowly losing two previous elections to Mr Tadic, Mr Nikolic has capitalised on widespread disaffection with the parlous state of Serbia’s economy, rising unemployment, pervasive corruption and a lack of tangible rewards from progress made on the road to EU accession.

Having captured the last major Serb war-crimes suspects, Belgrade was granted EU candidate member status in March, and Mr Tadic said he would seek the start of formal accession talks this year if re-elected and has promised a steady improvement in people’s living standards.

“We have to change things that were not good, but we also have to continue the job we began together,” Mr Tadic said last week.

“Getting (EU) candidate status is a chance, but making the wrong choice in this election may ruin it all.”

Mr Nikolic, who once said he would prefer Serbia to become a Russian province than a member of the EU, said he supported “a two-door policy, both towards the East and the West.”

Both candidates said they would never recognise the independence of Kosovo, but Mr Tadic has opened talks with the former Serb province on practical matters.