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Ambiguous Serbian Vote Puts Spotlight on Socialists

Socialist leader Ivica Dacic could hold the balance of power in the new Serbian parliament.
If Serbian voters had a message for their politicians, it was: we're as divided as you are.

With 26.7 percent of the vote in the presidential contest on May 6, pro-European Boris Tadic, who was president until his resignation in April, has been forced into a May 20 runoff with nationalist rival Tomislav Nikolic, who finished on his heels with 25.5 percent.

The two men's parties finished neck and neck in the parliamentary contest as well.

In that poll, Nikolic's Progressive Party won 72 seats in Serbia's 250-seat National Assembly, while Tadic's Democrats trailed closely behind with 67 seats.

It's a result that may signal a small shift for Serbia away from the European path.

"I think what we know from these election results is that relatively pro-European forces aren't doing particularly well in these elections," says Daniel Serwer, former U.S. envoy to Bosnia-Herzegovina and an analyst with the Washington-based Center for Transatlantic Relations. "I think what they spell is no basic change in Serbian policy, except somewhat maybe in the more nationalist direction."

Socialists As Kingmakers

The parliamentary vote hands unexpected power to the third-place finisher, the Socialist Party of former Serbian and Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic.

The Socialists, who took a substantial 48 seats, are now set to gain considerable leverage in any future government.

With 90 days to form a government, there is theoretically the possibility of a grand coalition between the Democrats and the Progressives.
Political cartoonist CORAX has Dacic rubbing Aladdin's lamp, wishing for high office, only to conjure up the genie of Milosevic.
Political cartoonist CORAX has Dacic rubbing Aladdin's lamp, wishing for high office, only to conjure up the genie of Milosevic.

But most analysts are putting their money on a coalition that pairs the Socialists as kingmakers with either side. Both camps are said to already be courting party leader Ivica Dacic, who is seen as someone who is striving to distance his party from its tarnished association with Milosevic and the Balkan wars, and who were willing partners of the Democrats in the previous Serbian government.

Dacic, who placed third in the presidential contest with 16 percent of the vote, appeared confident he was holding a strong bargaining chip, and is likely to prolong any decision until after the presidential runoff later this month.

"We still don't know who will be president, but we know for sure who will be the prime minister," Dacic said on May 6, referring to himself. "Whoever wants to talk to us will have to understand that we have risen from the ashes."

Fringe Parties Fare Badly

Fringe parties on both sides of the political spectrum -- from the Radicals led by Vojislav Seselj, who has been indicted for war crimes by The Hague and is currently on trial there, to the Liberal Democrats, the only party to advocate the recognition of Kosovo's independence -- fared poorly.

The Radicals, in particular, failed for the first time to cross the 5-percent threshold needed to enter parliament.

Instead, most votes coalesced around what is seen as an increasingly centrist mainstream where the Progressives favor EU integration and the Democrats have been accused of playing regional troublemaker through their support for Serbian populations in Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the rest of the former Yugoslavia.

The vote is seen as a mild rebuke to Tadic, who has overseen a period of economic turmoil, with a quarter of the country's workers now unemployed.

But Tadic -- who finished second in his previous first-round contest against Nikolic in 2008, only to emerge the eventual victor -- is also widely credited with getting Serbia official EU candidate status this year.

Given the current election results in France and Greece, where ruling leaders and governments were summarily thrown out by a deeply dissatisfied electorate, Ivan Vejvoda of the German Marshall Fund maintains that Tadic and the Democrats have fared relatively well -- and are likely to end up leading whatever government coalition may form.

"If the Democratic Party forms a coalition, as I expect, then the election results will send a really strong message to the government that emerges," he says. "It [will know that it] needs to be much more serious about continuing democratic reforms and solving corruption and other problems."

Written by Daisy Sindelar based on reporting by Dragan Stavljanin of RFE/RL's Balkan Service