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Pro-Western president of Serbia declares election victory

Monday, May 12, 2008

BELGRADE, Serbia -- Serbia's pro-Western president declared victory in Sunday's parliamentary elections -- an upset over ultranationalists who tried to exploit anger over Kosovo's independence. But his rivals vowed to fight on, and it was unclear if he could stave off their challenge.

"This is a great day for Serbia," Boris Tadic proclaimed after an independent monitoring group that carried out a parallel vote count nationwide said his bloc won 39 percent -- about 10 percent more than the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party.

"The citizens of Serbia have confirmed Serbia's European path," he said. "Serbia will be in the European Union. We have promised that, and we will fulfill that."

Tadic, however, acknowledged his nationalist rivals could still team up against his Coalition for a European Serbia and try to form Serbia's next government. Any alliance that can muster a simple 126-seat majority in the 250-seat parliament can govern, and nationalists indicated they would mount a challenge.

Although Tadic's coalition appeared assured of 103 seats, the Radicals were poised to get 76 seats. If they joined forces with Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's conservative coalition, with 30 seats, and the Socialist Party of the late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, with 21, the combined strength would be 127 seats.

Radical leader Tomislav Nikolic urged his allies to pull together, and said he would meet today with Kostunica and the Socialists to form a government, "because ideologically we are very close."

Nikolic also accused Tadic of inciting violence by proclaiming victory. But Tadic made clear he saw Sunday's outcome as a mandate to take the divided country into the EU.

"I'm sure that those who wanted to return Serbia to the 1990s will try to overturn the electoral will of the people, but I will not allow it," Tadic told supporters, adding that he would propose a new prime minister from his own bloc.

Tadic's opponents said their own vote tabulations confirmed the pro-Western forces' victory -- an astonishing turnabout after weeks of speculation that the Radicals and Kostunica together would sweep to victory. The results instead left Kostunica fighting for his political future.

Kostunica said Sunday evening his differences with Tadic's coalition were "insurmountable," and that he was open to talks with the Radicals.

Official results were not expected until Monday, but the state electoral commission issued partial results that corresponded to the projections of the Center for Free Elections and Democracy and the tabulations of the main parties.

The respected center, whose representatives observed vote tallying at polling stations across Serbia, said the Radicals were running a distant second with 28.6 percent, and that Kostunica's bloc had about 11.6 percent. It said the Socialists had about 8.2 percent -- their best result since Milosevic's ouster in 2000.

The pro-Western coalition's surprisingly strong showing came just three months after protesters outraged by Kosovo's Feb. 17 independence declaration set fire to part of the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade.

That anger had stoked expectations of an electoral backlash and a Radical victory that would have squelched Serbia's efforts to prepare for eventual EU membership. The Radicals had vowed to steer the country away from the West and toward Russia, and openly defy international demands for the arrest of Gen. Ratko Mladic and other fugitive war crimes suspects.

The European Union called the success of Tadic's coalition a "clear victory" by pro-European forces.

Sunday's elections were the first in Serbia since Kosovo declared independence. Many had expected widespread anger to propel the Radicals to victory, and warned that it could plunge the country into fresh isolation.

Officials said turnout was about 60 percent -- lower than in January's presidential elections, but strong for a parliamentary vote.

Voters also cast ballots Sunday in Kosovo, where Serb leaders organized parallel local elections in defiance of international authorities. The U.N. branded the local elections illegal, but did not stop people from voting, and NATO peacekeepers stepped up patrols as a precaution. No incidents were reported.

Kostunica and Nikolic had tried to capitalize on an acute sense of betrayal after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February and gained formal recognition from the U.S., Canada, Japan and key European powers.

Serbs consider Kosovo the heart of their ancient homeland and Serbian Orthodox faith, and their bitterness has nudged the country toward ultranationalists promising to restore bruised national pride.

The nationalists also sought to exploit disenchantment with 30 percent unemployment, rising prices and corruption.

Tadic, who also opposes Kosovo's independence and reiterated Sunday that he would never recognize its statehood, claimed last week that he had received death threats.

He also has been publicly denounced as a traitor for signing a pre-entry aid and trade pact with the EU -- a deal that Kostunica and Nikolic contend amounts to blood money in exchange for giving up Kosovo.

Yet many Serbs responded to Tadic's message that the country's future lies with the EU.

Milosevic was ousted by a pro-democracy movement in 2000, and the former leader -- who presided over the bloody 1990s breakup of Yugoslavia -- died in March 2006 in a prison cell in The Hague, Netherlands, where a U.N. tribunal was trying him for atrocities in the Balkans.


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