By Neil MacDonald-Financial Times.
Published: January 19 2007
Serbia's parliamentary election on Sunday pits Vojislav Kostunica, the nationalist-leaning prime minister, against Bozidar Djelic, the former finance minister and economic reform advocate.
The election comes at a critical stage of international bargaining over Kosovo, the disputed Serbian province under United Nations administration since 1999.
Although the main parties insist on Serbian territorial integrity, the outcome will determine if the largest former Yugoslav republic sets a course towards the European Union and Nato or continues to count on political backing from Russia.
In a sign of the election's regional significance, Traian Basescu, Romania's president, visited Belgrade this week to campaign for the Kostunica and Djelic parties. Serbia's European perspective, he warned, would be postponed for years if the extreme nationalists won.
Mr Basescu also urged the EU to keep its promises of future membership for the states of the former Yugoslavia. "European politicians are very well aware of the fact that a Europe which excludes the western Balkans could face problems."
Until campaigning intensified this month, the election appeared to promise more of the same - a loose coalition under Mr Kostunica, with pro-western parties accepting his leadership to keep the hardline nationalist Serb Radical party out of power.
But when Mr Kostunica refused to reject publicly a coalition with the Radicals until after the votes were counted, Boris Tadic, Serbia's pro-western president, responded by nominating Mr Djelic for prime minister.
Mr Djelic promises to turn Serbia into a "Balkan tiger" in the next decade with stricter fiscal management and a push to revive pre-EU accession negotiations.
Polls published in Belgrade newspapers this week suggest the Radical party will remain the largest single bloc in parliament, with up to 30 per cent of votes.
However, no one in the "democrat" camp would let the premiership go to Tomislav Nikolic, the Radical candidate. Vojislav Seselj, the party's official leader, is detained in The Hague on war crimes charges.
Polling by US-based Greenberg Research puts the Tadic-Djelic list next, with only 23 per cent, although Mr Djelic hopes to overcome voter apathy and win more votes than the Radicals.
Mr Kostunica's party was set to come third with about 15 per cent of votes, and the free-market G17 Plus 12 per cent. Unlike other potential coalition partners, G17 Plus looks compatible with a Kostunica or Djelic government.
The Liberal Democratic coalition and the Socialists, the party of the late Slobodan Milosevic, are struggling to clear the 5 per cent minimum to enter parliament.
Mr Kostunica is campaigning as an "integrating factor" for the politically troubled state, his team says.
But voter apathy is a worry for most parties except the Radicals, whose generous welfare promises have strong appeal to those who have lost out since the break-up of Yugoslavia.
The prime minister has courted the nationalist youth vote by appearing at a Serbian new year concert by Ceca, the turbo-folk singer and widow of a slain nationalist gang leader.
Vladeta Jankovic, a senior adviser to Mr Kostunica, said the campaign was patriotic rather than nationalistic in a negative sense.
A deal with the Radicals could alienate some of the prime minister's oldest supporters, some of whom say they fear the Radicals' populist economic agenda as much as its history of ethnic intolerance towards neighbouring states.
Economic policy has dominated campaign debates. Mladjan Dinkic, G17 Plus's leader and until recently finance minister, said that was a sign of greater "normality" than in past elections.
However, campaigning is overshadowed by the UN Security Council decision over the status of Kosovo, the 90 per cent ethnic Albanian province that was severed by Nato aerial bombardment in 1999.
Only the Liberal Democratic list, led by Cedomir Jovanovic, supports independence for Kosovo openly. Both main democratic parties are against any concession on Serbia's borders. Yet many voters backing the Tadic-Djelic list would prefer to let Kosovo go.
Post-election coalition bargaining could be further complicated if the chief UN mediator recommends EU-supervised independence for Kosovo in early February.
Additional reporting by Stefan Wagstyl in Bucharest