BELGRADE (Reuters) - Nationalist Tomislav Nikolic won the first round of Serbia’s presidential election on Sunday, setting up a run-off with the pro-Western incumbent that will shape ties with the EU after the expected loss of Kosovo.
Results from the state election commission showed Nikolic with 39.6 percent of the vote, not enough to win outright. He will face pro-Western President Boris Tadic, who took 35.5 percent, in a Feb 3 run-off. The figures were released after 85 percent of the votes had been counted.
“I would think very hard before saying who is the favorite,” said political analyst Djordje Vukadinovic. “This result indicates a very unpredictable race in the second round.”
Analysts said a record 61 percent turnout reflected an appreciation that the election has come at a pivotal moment for Serbia as it faces the loss of its historic heartland Kosovo where the Albanian majority is seeking independence.
“People realized it’s a very important election as depending on who wins, Serbia will decide its future orientation, to the EU or Russia,” said Djordje Vukovic of the CESID think-tank.
To win the run-off, the two candidates will have to attract third party votes with promises of higher living standards, jobs and the defense of Kosovo.
Indications by Washington and most EU member states that they will recognize Kosovo as independent within months have irked Serbs who feel the country has paid enough for its role in the wars of the 1990s.
Nikolic, whose Radical Party supported the policies of late autocrat Slobodan Milosevic during the 1990s, says Russia will avert that, and favors a neutral stance between East and West.
He has toned down his rhetoric to appeal to moderates as well as the one third of Serbs who live just above the poverty line. He rejects accusations of isolationism and war-mongering.
“Citizens have shown their wish for change,” he said on Sunday. “I want to unite Serbia, to put it on a better path.”
Tadic also opposes independence for Kosovo but favors signing a first-level agreement with the EU even if the bloc takes over Kosovo’s supervision as a prelude to recognizing the territory.
Tadic, who defeated Nikolic in a run-off in 2004 after his rival won the first round, has warned that a Nikolic victory would drive the country back to the Milosevic days.
“I will not allow us to go back to the 1990s,” he said.
“I will not give up the struggle for Kosovo nor the struggle for a European future.”
Additional reporting by Ivana Sekularac and Ljilja Cvekic; Editing by Keith Weir