Results from Sunday's presidential elections are seen as crucial as to whether Serbia moves closer to the European Union or sinks back into the nationalist isolation reminiscent of Slobodan Milosevic's governance.

Opinion polls show Boris Tadic of the centre-left Democratic party favourite to beat Tomislav Nikolic of the ultra- nationalist Radical party, whose leader is awaiting trial at the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
 
But political analysts say low turnout could still hand Nikolic the presidency as his voters are more disciplined.

The outcome could help determine whether Serbia, impoverished after years of wars and sanctions under Milosevic, faces renewed international isolation or forges closer ties with the West.

Nikolic says he wants to develop relations both with the West and the East and that he will meet Serbia's international obligations, rejecting charges his policies would turn it into a pariah state.

Nikolic, 52, and Tadic, 46, advanced from a field of 15 in a first round of voting two weeks ago. Nikolic polled 30.4% and Tadic 27.6%, forcing a runoff between them.

Tadic has since boosted his chances by securing the support of rival pro-European politicians, including conservative Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, whose own candidate finished a distant fourth in the earlier round.

Western favourite

Western powers clearly favour Tadic, hoping he will help end feuding among the pro-democracy politicians who toppled Milosevic and speeded up stalled political and economic reform.

West hopes Boris Tadic will speed
up political and economic reform

Nikolic as president might hurt Serbia's chances of one day joining the wealthy European Union and also risks scaring off foreign investment, diplomats and analysts say.

He opposes the handover of suspects to the UN court, a key condition for ties with the EU. His party also advocates a Greater Serbia encompassing Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia, even though it now says it should be achieved peacefully.

The election is being closely watched in independence-minded Montenegro as well as in UN-run Kosovo, whose Albanians desperately want to break away from Belgrade. Both are tied to Serbia in a loose union that replaced Yugoslavia last year.   

Early unofficial results are expected later on Sunday evening.