Serbian PM Vucic accepts nomination to run for president

Serbia's Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic arrives to the meeting of heads of government Central and Eastern European countries and China in Riga, Latvia, November 5, 2016. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic formally agreed on Friday to be the presidential candidate of his center-right Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) in an election tentatively slated for April.

The vote will be a key test of the popularity of Vucic and his economic reforms, which have been backed by the International Monetary Fund, as well as his bid to bring the country of 7.3 million closer to the European Union.

Opinion polls suggest he could win with more than 50 percent of the vote already in the first round of the election as the opposition is fragmented and weak.

“I have decided to accept the candidacy for president ... because this country needs work, stability, investment and a future,” Vucic told hundreds of jubilant supporters after a meeting of the SNS main board.

While the president’s role in Serbia is largely ceremonial, if his party has a parliamentary majority he can exert considerable sway over the government. Vucic’s ruling coalition now has a comfortable majority in parliament.

The SNS board decided on Tuesday to nominate Vucic instead of incumbent Tomislav Nikolic, a former party leader who wants closer ties with Serbia’s powerful ally Russia.

The departure of Nikolic could mean quicker moves towards EU accession and a further improvement of Serbia’s ties with NATO, despite its military neutrality.

On Wednesday and Thursday Serbian newspapers reported Nikolic could run for another term against Vucic, but both have far declined to confirm or deny the reports.

Vucic does not have to resign as prime minister before the election.

Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Gareth Jones