Serbia's incumbent president Boris Tadic looks set to face the right-wing opposition leader Tomislav Nikolic in a second round of presidential elections, independent pollsters said.
The Centre for Free Elections and Democracy said Sunday's unofficial complete count showed Tadic of the Democratic Party, taking 26.7 per cent of the votes, while populist Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) leader Nikolic has 25.5 per cent.
The pollsters said the results are similar in the parallel parliamentary vote, meaning the Democrats are likely to form the next cabinet with the Socialists, just like they did after the last vote four years ago, who came in third and are demanding the premiership.
But the result, if it stands, will mark an upset after opinion polls ahead of the vote suggested the SNS would beat the
Democratic Party by a wider margin.
Tadic, Serbia's president since 2004, is likely to enter a runoff for the presidency with Nikolic of the SNS on May 20.
|Presidential candidates Nikolic, right, and incumbent Tadic will enter a runoff for the presidency on May 20, polls suggest [AFP]
Tadic said that the presidential runoff will be crucial for the future of Serbia.
"The battle will be fought between myself and Nikolic,'' Tadic said. "Our positions are totally diverse. I'm sure I'll win.''
Nikolic, a former cemetery manager, predicted he will be victorious in the runoff.
"The victory is within reach,'' Nikolic said. "We will have a new government and a new president.''
The general elections represented a stark choice between the Democrats or nationalists, who were trying to return to power for the first time since their former Balkan strongman ally Slobodan Milosevic was ousted in 2000.
With 16.6 per cent of the vote, the third-placed Socialist Party (SPS), once led by Milosevic, will likely cast the crucial vote to decide who forms Serbia's next coalition government, and is widely tipped to pick the Democrats.
They were partners in the outgoing reformist coalition that has steered Serbia to talks on joining the European Union.
'Time for change'
"There is huge blackmailing potential for the SPS," said analyst Zoran Stojilkovic. "They are closer to the Democrats and they will have huge demands."
"The likeliest outcome is that the pro-European coalition will continue," he said. "It's just a question of the make-up."
Nikolic was once demonised by the West as Milosevic's spiritual heir but says he now shares the goal of taking Serbia into the EU.
Under the Democratic Party, Serbia closed a dark chapter with the arrest and extradition of Bosnian Serb genocide suspects Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, and in March became an official candidate for EU membership.
But there is widespread anger at the outgoing government over an economic downturn that has driven unemployment to 24 per cent and weakened the dinar. The average Serb takes home 380 euros ($497) per month.
Fellow ex-Yugoslav republic Croatia joins the EU next year, causing many Serbs to realise just how far they have fallen behind. The Democratic Party has also been undermined by a widely-held perception of elitism after more than a decade in power.
"The Democrats had their chance and they failed miserably so now it's time for a change," said 59-year-old Belgrade nurse Olga Nikolic, who voted for the opposition.