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Serbs vote in polls seen too close to call

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Serbs are voting in presidential, parliamentary and local elections in a contest that gives them a sharp choice between a liberal government and one that would include former nationalist allies of the late Slobodan Milosevic.

Sunday's voting comes after a campaign dominated by economic issues, in which President Boris Tadic, a member of the Democratic Party, is pitted against conservative populist Tomislav Nikolic.

Surveys put Tadic and Nikolic neck-and-neck in the presidential race, with their parties also running close in the parliamentary elections.

The elections are seen as a turning point for Serbia because for the first time in almost two decades they are focused on the economy rather than the Balkan conflicts that left Belgrade internationally isolated for much of the past two decades.

Both camps support Serbia's EU membership bid while breakaway Kosovo, which overshadowed the last polls, has been pushed to the background by concerns about Serbia's stumbling economy and record unemployment.

Until a few years ago, Nikolic was strongly against EU candidacy. 

Serbia's economic outlook looks grim and economists predict unemployment, now at 24 per cent, will rise further.

European integration

Throughout the campaign Tadic has insisted that only a government led by his Democratic Party can bring in foreign investment and usher Serbia into the EU.

In comments to Croatian television just hours before polling stations opened Tadic warned that a win by the populists would risk Serbia's European future.

"Anything else [than a Democratic Party victory] would be a big risk and a big gamble for Serbia's European integration [and] for regional politics," the 54-year-old incumbent said.

He warned that a move away from EU integration could destabilise Serbia and affect the whole Balkans region.

Tadic has been an unfailing supporter of the EU and led Belgrade from an international pariah state to being awarded EU candidacy status in March.

The Democratic Party has been trying to capitalise on that but the growing economic crisis has fed voter discontent with the ruling coalition.

Analysts said Nikolic's Serbian Progressive Party has managed to cash in on voter discontent with low wages, unemployment and mishandled privatisations, while Tadic's party has suffered from perceived mistakes in their handling of the economic crisis.

'Vote of reason'

Nikolic, 60, a reformed ultra-nationalist has promised to raise taxes for the rich and use the money for pensions and welfare, and vowed to attract billions of euros in investments.

For pensioner Zivka Jovanovic it will be a "vote of reason".

"None of the candidates is really good but I will vote for those who are the least bad," she explained, adding that she would vote for Tadic.

"We worry about our grandchildren's future," her husband Zoran explained, as the couple voted at a Belgrade polling station.

"I came to fire my democratic bullet at the (Democratic Party) regime in the hopes that it will fall today," 53-year-old shopkeeper Ivan Radakovic told the AFP news agency.

Around 6.7 million Serbians are eligible to vote and choose among 12 presidential candidates and 18 parties contesting the parliamentary elections.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe mission will organise the elections for about 109,000 Serb voters living in Kosovo.

Polling stations will close at 8:00 pm (18:00GMT). The first significant partial results are expected at 9:30 pm (19:30GMT).


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