The snap parliamentary election seen as fateful for Serbia's future came to a close Sunday with surprisingly weak turnout and concerns that it would benefit the surging anti-Western bloc.
The fateful election will determine Serbia's future direction
Some 6.75 million Serbs were eligible to choose from 22 tickets, but the real choices were the anti-European bloc led by the ultra- nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) and President Boris Tadic's pro-EU Democratic Party (DS).
But after a record rush of voters in the first three hours, the turnout slowed to reach just 54.2 per cent with an hour remaining in the vote, according to figures by the private election monitoring agency Cesid.
The turnout in the previous parliamentary poll, in January 2007, was 60.4 per cent and in the presidential run-off vote on February 3, when Tadic defeated the SRS leader Tomislav Nikolic, was 67.6 per cent.
Pre-election polls gave SRS a slight lead over the DS, with each tipped to win around a third of the votes. The weak turnout would likely work in favor of the Radicals, with their reliable following.
Anti-Western coalition preparing for government
Kostunica is expected to form a government with the Radicals
Outgoing Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) is expected to ally with SRS and the late strongman Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party (SPS) for the next government coalition.
Such an alliance would signal a sharper turn by Belgrade away from the West. Both Kostunica and the SRS leader Nikolic vowed to halt Serbia's progress toward European Union (EU) membership, saying the EU supported the secession of Kosovo.
The pro-European camp led by Tadic would in that case be unable to prevent the collapse of the Stabilization and Association (SAA) agreement that Serbia's rump government, dominated by DS, signed with the EU just two weeks ago.
The elections, held together with voting for municipal authorities, was forced when Tadic and Kostunica ended their alliance and the government collapsed on March 1 in a tug of war over Serbia's course.
After leading Western nations recognized Kosovo's declaration of independence in February, Kostunica tried to freeze Serbia's EU membership talks, but was outvoted in his own cabinet by ministers from Tadic's camp.
Lack of progress weighs heavy on Serbs
Tadic's EU vision may suffer from Serbia's apathy
Although Sunday's election was billed as fateful for the country's European future by Tadic and as crucial in its fight to keep Kosovo Serbian, the average Serb may be too apathetic after disappointing progress in the eight years since the people toppled Milosevic.
On top of still being almost as poor and isolated as they were under Milosevic, subject to a prohibitive and humiliating visa regime by almost all European countries, many Serbs also feel betrayed by the West.
The sentiment has been eagerly fuelled by nationalists, who describe the international demands for the arrest of war crime suspects and the outcome of the Kosovo story - from the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 to its secession - as an anti-Serbian conspiracy.
The EU agreement and a prospect of a more relaxed visa regime offered by the EU days before Sunday's poll may have been too little too late to prevent the return of the SRS and the SPS to power, with the DSS.
First results, based on extrapolation from a sample of polling stations, were expected several hours after voting ended at 8 pm.
UN deems local elections illegal
Kosovo Serbs vote in local elections deemed illegal by the UN
Meanwhile, Kosovo Serbs defied the United Nations and held local elections Sunday, but the top UN official dismissed the ballot in the Serbian enclaves as "illegal" and "without effect."
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February, but Serbia went ahead with local elections in parts of the former province where Serbs are majority -- coinciding with elections in Serbia itself.
"Illegal elections cannot have legal consequences. Their outcome will not be recognized," United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) head Joachim Ruecker said in a statement.
The separate Serb election in Kosovo was also opposed by the Pristina government.
Kosovo's Minister for Local Administration Sadri Ferati told local media that his government will not recognize the results and will not cooperate with the elected officials.
Kosovo's Albanian majority declared independence on February 17, a move recognized by more than 40 countries, including most EU members and the United States.
The Serbian minority, largely concentrated in northern Kosovo close to the Serbian border, is keeping close ties with Belgrade and refuses to participate in Kosovo's government.