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Serbia faces dramatic runoff vote

The Radical Party acting leader Nikolic got 39 percent of the vote in presidential polls Sunday. He and pro-European moderate Tadic will square off in Round 2 of voting on Feb. 3.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 22, 2008

Tomislav Nikolic: The Radical Party acting leader celebrated his strong showing in Round 1 of the presidential polls on Sunday.


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The largest Serb election turnout since voters tossed out Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 has set up a dramatic runoff for Feb. 3 between a radical pro-Russia nationalist whose mentor is at The Hague for war crimes and a pro-European Union moderate who has favored trade, reconciliation, and even NATO status.

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Serbian Radical Party chief Tomislav Nikolic and President Boris Tadic faced an identical scenario in the 2004 Serb elections. Mr. Tadic won.

But that was then, and this is now, experts say. Since 2004, Serbia's political and emotional mood has shifted to the right, favoring nationalists like Mr. Nikolic, experts say, who garnered 39 percent of the Round 1 vote, versus 35 percent for Mr. Tadic.

In 2004, moreover, Nikolic was a political novice, the status of Kosovo was not the highly wrought issue it now is, and Tadic was backed by current Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. That backing is no longer certain.

Significantly, the February runoff takes place days before the ancient Kosovo heartland of Serbia declares independence. With losing Kosovo as the main issue, the election is seen to be a crossroads for Serbia and the Balkans – and has major implications for a Europe that is soon to send 1,800 police to Kosovo to keep the peace.

The Serbian Radical Party was formed in the early 1990s by Vojislav Seselj, whose notorious paramilitary groups fought in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Mr. Seselj was a close ally of Mr. Milosevic, who died in 2006 while on trial at the international tribunal at The Hague, where Seselj remains today, charged with ethnic cleansing, torture, and murder.

In the 2004 elections, as Seselj's protégé, Nikolic steadily invoked the names of Milosevic and Seselj in the national elections campaign, arguing that their trials were a farce.