Serb candidates snatch final votes before poll

Presidential candidates in Serbia are making their final pitches before tomorrow’s election, which shapes as a pivotal moment in the country’s history. Voters will decide if they want Serbia to embrace Europe or become more nationalist again.

Almost every billboard in the centre of Belgrade has been bought up by the nine candidates. But two men are front-runners – Boris Tadic who’s pro-Europe and nationalist Tomislav Nikolic.

Front-runners

Boris Tadic symbolises the change that the country has undergone since the toppling of Slobodan Milosevic eight years ago.

He has spent his first term paving the way for Serbia to eventually join the EU and NATO.

And although his critics say that the promise of a European dream has not yet brought the living standards to match, he responds that integration is the only way forward.

Tadic's main opponent, and the man he beat in a run-off four years ago, is Tomislav Nikolic.

Known for his fiery rhetoric, he is the deputy leader of the nationalist Radical Party. Its leader Vojislav Seselj is currently on trial for war crimes in the Hague.

Nikolic was a member of Milosevic's ruling coalition in the late 1990s.

Although he is a Euro-sceptic, and has called for greater Serbian independence, Nikolic denies that the country will become an autocratic pariah state under his leadership.

However, in a tight race, the candidates have softened their positions in the hunt for the middle ground.

Candidates’ policy lines

With his public relations managed by an American company, Nikolic has promised no more armed ethnic conflicts, and has replaced anti-Western sentiment with a more considered bilateral stance.

Conversely, Boris Tadic has been keen to show that he will defend Serbian interests on another big election issue, Kosovo.

The nominally Serbian, but mostly Albanian-populated province wants to announce its independence.

It is regarded as the historical heartland by most Serbs, who also worry about the treatment of the Serb minorities in the region.

The next President will be expected to walk a tight line between losing face in Kosovo and sparking more conflict in the volatile province.

Both Tadic and Nikolic have promised severe sanctions towards Kosovo if it declares independence, and towards any countries that recognise it, even if that harms Serbia's international prospects.

Although Nikolic holds a narrow lead over Tadic in the opinion polls, it is unlikely that either candidate will get the absolute majority needed to avoid a run-off.

A second round is already scheduled for February 3.