Ultra-nationalist Nikolic leads Serbian poll

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The Independent Online

For the fourth time in less than two years, Serbs voted in presidential elections yesterday, to choose between the isolation of their past and a thorny road towards the future, Europe and democracy.

For the fourth time in less than two years, Serbs voted in presidential elections yesterday, to choose between the isolation of their past and a thorny road towards the future, Europe and democracy.

The past was represented by Tomislav Nikolic, the candidate of the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), which participated in the government of Slobodan Milosevic. The party's leader Vojislav Seselj, like Mr Milosevic, is awaiting trial by the international war crimes tribunalin The Hague.

Mr Nikolic was leading all the opinion polls with some 30 per cent of votes but, with 14 other candidates in the presidential race, an outright victory is unlikely: to win the post, a candidate needs more than 50 per cent of all votes, regardless of the turnout. As none is expected to reach this threshold, Serbia will hold the decisive run-off between the top two candidates in a fortnight's time.

Mr Nikolic's popularity, particularly among the poor, who feel they have missed out on the promised benefits of democratic reform, has raised fears that Serbia is sliding back into the nationalist politics of the Milosevic era. "Serbia has been without a leader too long," Mr Nikolic said as he cast his vote.

The country has failed in three previous elections to produce a president because voter turnout was below the legally required 50 per cent, a provision that has been dropped.

Mr Nikolic promised early elections should he win. His party became the strongest in parliament last December, but a government was formed by the conservative Vojislav Kostunica and centre-right groups, backed by Mr Milosevic's Socialists.

Some fear a victory for Mr Nikolic could have a catastrophic impact on Serbia's economy, driving away foreign investors and stalling desperately needed aid from Western financial institutions.

Second in all the polls was Boris Tadic, the leader of the pro-Western Democratic Party (DS). The DS spearheaded economic and democratic reforms after Mr Milosevic fell from power in 2000, but lost the December parliamentary elections. It is trying to recover from the assassination last year of its leader Zoran Djindjic, who was prime minister

"These elections are of extreme importance for the future of Serbia," Mr Tadic said. "The world is watching; we should be the part of that world, above all Europe... We cannot solve our problems without foreign help."

Other participants in the race including the phlegmatic government candidate Dragan Marsicanin, and Bogoljub Karic, a Milosevic-era media and telecoms tycoon. Mr Karic centred his campaign on the economic improvement of the country.

For the first time there was a royalty among the candidates, Princess Jelisaveta Karadjordjevic. She returned to the country only recently, as her family was banned from Serbia after the Second World War.

The campaigning saw no mention of Mr Milosevic by the candidates, and the same went for Serbia's co-operation with the international war crimes tribunal. Mr Nikolic promised that "no Serbs will ever be handed to the tribunal again", but other candidates avoided the issue. Four Serbian generals are wanted by the tribunal, apart from the outstanding demand that the former Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic be extradited.

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