Serbia is to hold presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections on Sunday. The build-up to the marathon vote has been dominated by economic issues, overshadowing debates about the country's bid to join the EU.
A struggling economy, growing joblessness and widespread discontent over falling living standards have taken center stage in Serbia's election campaign, pushing aside debates over the country's EU ambitions.
"The mood among the people, who are only interested in economic issues, was decisive in the campaign," said Aleksandra Joksimovic of the Serbian Center for Foreign Policy. She added that the issue of EU integration was "outdated and uninteresting in the election campaign" ever since Serbia was declared an official candidate for EU membership in March.
Neither of the two leading candidates have questioned Serbia's strategic orientation. Both President Boris Tadic from the reformist Democratic Party and his closest rival, opposition leader Tomislav Nikolic from the nationalist Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), want to steer Serbia towards the European Union. Their parties are expected to form the strongest political groups in the future Serbian parliament.
Only a few parties have tried to set themselves apart by opposing the country's EU membership bid. That includes the conservative Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) headed by former President and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. However, Kostunica doesn't stand much of a chance in the presidential election. Recent opinion polls show a neck-and-neck race between Tadic and Nikolic.
Kosovo row not a big issue
President Boris Tadic is a strongly pro-western leader. His Democratic Party has been considered socially liberal and modern ever since Tadic took over after the assassination of former premier Zoran Djindjic in 2003.
Tadic's closest rival, Tomislav Nikolic founded his Serbian Progressive Party in 2008 after splitting from the nationalist Radical party of Vojislav Seselj, on trial in the Hague for alleged war crimes. Today, Nikolic is considered a moderate who says he's in favor of European integration - though some still question the depth of his party's conviction.
Another central political issue in Serbia, which has hardly been mentioned in the election campaign, is the dispute over Kosovo. Serbia still refuses to recognize the sovereignty of the breakaway province, which declared independence in 2008. Most political parties agree on this position towards Kosovo.
The exception is the Liberal Democrat Party (LDP) which is in favor of recognizing Kosovo's sovereignty. Opinion polls suggest the LDP is likely to reach the five-percent threshold to enter parliament.
Kosovo Serbs, who hold a Serbian passport, are allowed to vote in the parliamentary and presidential polls in Serbia. The vote will be organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as agreed by the Albanian-controlled government in Kosovo's capital, Pristina.
But the move reflects a contradictory policy by the Serbian government, according to Belgrade-based political expert Dusan Janjic. “Both the Kosovo government as well as the Serbian opposition consider that to amount to the full recognition of the sovereignty of Kosovo, and to see the Serbian community there as diaspora,” Janjic said.
Additional troops in Kosovo
Tensions have risen over alleged cross-border elections. Serbia has said it will not hold local elections among Kosovo's minority Serbs. But some Kosovo Serbs have insisted they will organize voting themselves, prompting an outcry in Pristina.
In the face of rising political tensions, both Germany and Austria have sent additional troops to northern Kosovo, home to around 50,000 Serbs, as part of NATO's peacekeeping force.
Nikolic is Tadic's strongest political opponent
Despite the strained political situation, the key issues in the election campaign are spiraling joblessness, economic decline and corruption. Almost 25 percent of the population is out of work; the inflation rate reached 11 percent in the last 12 months. Unemployment and inflation have risen so rapidly after the last election in 2008 that there's widespread disillusionment with political pledges to turn things around.
There's a a danger that disaffected young voters, in particular, may not get out to cast their ballot. That would benefit Tomislav Nikolic's SNS party which is leading with a small margin in opinion polls. But most experts still expect a run-off vote between Nikolic and President Tadic.
The European Union, for its part, is hoping for free and fair elections.
"We're hoping for a new political leadership as a result of the elections," EU Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy, Stefan Füle, said. "A government that's more open to regional cooperation that remains on the path to Europe."
Author: Sasa Bojic / sp
Editor: Joanna Impey