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As Serbia Votes, A Sense Of Deja Vu

Serbia Votes In Parliamentary And Presidential Elections
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WATCH: Serbians go to the polls in parliamentary and presidential elections on May 6.

As Serbs go to the polls on May 6, they are being asked to do a lot of voting on one day. They will simultaneously elect a new president, deputies to parliament, and representatives to provincial and local councils.

But if that sounds like a recipe for sweeping changes, the mood in Serbia is more deja vu than expectant.

The reason: the key race for the presidency features two front-runners facing off for the third consecutive time since 2004.

Pro-European President Boris Tadic is seeking a third four-year term against his perennial challenger, nationalist Tomislav Nikolic. In both 2004 and 2008, Tadic narrowly won over his rival after the election went to a second round.

This time, the two candidates are again running neck and neck in opinion polls. As they do, each has moved closer to the position of the other as they try to appeal to the widest range of voters.

Both are promising to simultaneously join the European Union and maintain Belgrade's claim of sovereignty over Serbia's breakaway province of Kosovo, despite EU membership requiring states have no border conflicts with their neighbors.

Tadic, who heads the Democratic Party, told supporters recently: "We have, my respected friends, despite all attacks and threats, despite attacks that come from our domestic political scene, managed to maintain our policy 'Both Europe and Kosovo' and we will not give up either Europe or Kosovo because we don't want to put in question the territorial integrity of any part of our country."
Serbia's liberal President Boris Tadic (left) and nationalist leader Tomislav Nikolic are facing each other in a presidential runoff for the third time.
Serbia's liberal President Boris Tadic (left) and nationalist leader Tomislav Nikolic are facing each other in a presidential runoff for the third time.

Belgrade has refused to recognize Kosovo's independence since it declared statehood in 2008.

Nikolic, who heads the Serbian Progressive Party, also promises "both Europe and Kosovo." His support for EU membership is a shift since the 2008 election, when he campaigned on closer ties to Russia, instead.

"Serbia has got candidate status for the European Union. That's good and we have to continue on this path, we need to redeem the state according to European standards and we will," he told supporters recently.

"The road to the European Union is long and hard, we will need years. In Serbia, citizens crave change and it has to take place and we can change everything, everything but Serbia."

Voting For 'None Of The Above'

The fact that Tadic and Nikolic sound similar themes heightens a sense among some voters that neither party can lead Serbia out of its current political and economic difficulties.

While Serbia has moved closer to the EU over the last decade -- receiving candidate status two months ago -- it is still far from integration into the EU market and its economy has been badly hit by the recent global economic downturn. Britain's "The Economist" magazine recently estimated unemployment in Serbia at 24 percent.

The public's frustration with the status quo has given rise to one protest movement to cast unfilled – or "white" -- ballots on May 6.

Vesna Pesic, an independent lawmaker, said the white ballots would send a message to Serbia's entrenched parties.

"The message is clear -- a group of citizens is not satisfied with the government which has proclaimed itself pro-European and whose results are very bad," Pesic said.

"Thus, as a voter, if you want to punish that party or coalition, but you don't want to vote for the opposition parties because you feel they are not better than the government, then with the 'white' or empty ballot you can express your protest, that you don't want to vote for corrupt parties."

Both the leading Democratic Party and its rival Serbian Progressive Party reject the charges of corruption.

Serbs in Kosovo will participate in the May 6 poll under an agreement between the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Kosovo's government. The OSCE will set up mobile polling centers and the ballot counting will take place outside Kosovo.

If no candidate in the Serbian presidential race receives 50 percent of the votes on May 6, the two candidates who receive the most votes will compete again in a runoff. The runoff would likely be held within two weeks of an indecisive first round.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Balkan Service