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Voting Ends in Serbia's Presidential Election Face-Off

Voting has ended in the tense presidential election run-off in which Serbia could signal its European course in the next five years. The future of Kosovo and its independence is also linked to the vote.

A woman walks past billboards of pro-Western presidential candidate and incumbent Boris Tadic, left, and pro-Russian presidential candidate Tomislav Nikolic of the ultra-nationalist SRS-Serbian Radical Party, in Belgrade

The presidential election run-off between tadic and Nikolic is currently too close to call

Voting has ended Sunday in a tense presidential election run-off pitting the pro-European incumbent Boris Tadic against the nationalist challenger, Tomislav Nikolic.

Serbs turned out at a record pace, reflecting the referendum-like mood - though the president has mostly ceremonial duties, the outcome would signal which way voters want their country steered.

Nearly 63 per cent of the 6.7 million registered voters had cast their ballots with one hour remaining, the private election- monitoring agency Cesid said.

The final showing is to overshoot by a wide margin the 61 per cent from the first round two weeks ago.

Four years ago, after a series of attempts at electing a president failed owing to voter apathy, Serbia was forced to scrap a legal minimum turnout requirement of 50 per cent.

Serbia's President Boris Tadic casts his ballot

Tadic urged Serbia to remain on course for the EU

That time, in June 2004, Tadic defeated Nikolic in the run-off 53 to 47 per cent on a lowly 47 per cent turnout. But this time the stakes are higher as Serbia has been wavering on its European path.

In this year's contest, Nikolic won 40 per cent to Tadic's 35.5 per cent of the votes in the first round on January 20, but polls conducted between the two votes gave Tadic a razor-thin edge of less than 1 per cent.

Serbia must stay the EU course, says Tadic

Tadic says that Belgrade must remain on course to join the EU even if leading Western nations back the looming secession of Serbia's province Kosovo. "Serbia is without doubt on its way to full membership of the EU," he said after casting his ballot Sunday.

Tadic's opponent Nikolic leads the opposition Serbian Radical Party, the largest force in parliament and a key part of the former regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

He says Belgrade should freeze its relations with the West if it recognizes an independent and would instead seek closer ties with powers such as Russia and China.

Presidential candidate Tomislav Nikolic of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party casts his ballot

Nikolic said Serbia was much closer to Russia

Serbia is "much closer to Russia, to a partner that does not impose conditions and can enable our development," Nikolic said after voting in Belgrade.

The 6.7 million registered voters had to choose between the pro-European incumbent Boris Tadic and the ultra-nationalist Tomislav Nikolic.

Tadic, who says that Serbia must remain on its EU-course regardless of Western support of Kosovo's secession, heads the Democratic Party (DS), the senior partner in the cabinet coalition with Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia.

Nikolic leads the opposition Serbian Radicals (SRS), the strongest single party in the country, which was a key part of Slobodan Milosevic's regime until it was toppled in 2000. Nikolic says Belgrade should freeze its relations with the West over Kosovo.

The difference in the run-off is however expected to be dramatically slight -- some reports said that it could be less than 1 per cent and that the election may be decided by as few as 20,000 votes.

A referendum on East or West

Though the office of the president in Serbia carries little real authority, the election carries a referendum-like quality because Serbia has been wavering between East and West in its course.

Democratic party presidential candidate and current Serbian President, Boris Tadic

Tadic has not had the support of his senior partner

The conservative Prime Minister Vojsilav Kostunica has supported neither his senior coalition partner Tadic, nor Nikolic, with whom he shares a mistrust of the West. Kostunica, as Nikolic, says that Belgrade should stop its already stalled approach to European Union membership because leading Western countries support the secession of Kosovo from Serbia.

Kosovo leaders, representing the 90-per-cent Albanian majority, are expected to declare independence in the days or weeks after Sunday's vote in Serbia.

With his once undisputed popularity now dramatically reduced, Kostunica is likely to avoid early elections. If Tadic triumphs, the present coalition may continue as over the past year.

DS would however gain more credibility to steering Serbia toward integration with EU, which stalled not only over Kosovo, but also because Serbia continues refusing to arrest wanted war crimes suspects.

Fears a Nikolic win would return Serbia to isolation

If Nikolic wins, Kostunica may try to drop Tadic and the smallest partner in the existing coalition, the reformist G17 and replace them with Nikolic and the SRS, along with Slobodan Milosevic's Socialists.

Presidential candidate Tomislav Nikolic of the ultra-nationalist SRS-Serbian Radical Party

Pro-EU Serbs fear where Nikolic may take them

The pro-European camp in Serbia has warned that Nikolic's win would effectively return Serbia to isolation.

Backing Tadic and despite Serbia's failure to close the war crimes chapter, the EU has offered Serbia a broad political and economic cooperation deal for signing on February 7.

Should Nikolic win, however, the offer would "lose any meaning," Italian Deputy Foreign Minister Famiano Crucianelli has said.

Polling ends at 8 pm local time. Early results are normally expected within a few hours, but may this time be delayed if the score turns out to be as close as was anticipated.

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