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Last updated: April 4, 2012 4:33 pm
Boris Tadic, Serbia’s president, resigned on Wednesday, triggering an early election on May 6 in a move aimed at boosting his pro-European party’s chances in a parliamentary poll already set for the same day.
Mr Tadic’s decision seemed designed to capitalise on Serbia’s success last month in finally gaining the status of a candidate for European Union membership, after years of trying, and ensuring his party remains in power to lead the negotiating process.
His move may reinvigorate the chances of his Democratic party (DS), at present trailing in the polls, and breathe life more broadly into an electoral process that has so far been lacklustre. His party and its allies are facing a strong challenge from the opposition conservative Serbian Progressive party (SNS).
Mr Tadic and his party have made EU accession a priority since he narrowly won re-election in 2008. The way to gaining candidate status was cleared after Serbia handed over the war crimes suspects Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague, in 2008 and last year respectively.
But a target of getting candidacy last December was missed, in part after unrest broke out late last summer in Kosovo, the region which declared independence in 2008 but is still seen by Belgrade as part of Serbia. Serbia finally won candidate status on March 1.
“Tadic thinks he can break the hush of the election and set himself up as the pillar of the DS campaign,” says Bratislav Grubacic, a political analyst and member of the SNS party board.
Mr Tadic’s main opponent for the powerful presidency is most likely to be Tomislav Nikolic, who formed the SNS party in 2008 in a split from the ultranationalist Radical party. Mr Nikolic, then standing for the nationalists, lost to Mr Tadic in the 2008 presidential election, having stood as an ardently anti-EU and pro-Russian candidate.
Mr Nikolic now speaks in favour of EU membership, but takes a more cautious stance than the president, who has staked his career on moving Serbia towards the 27-nation bloc.
Full EU membership is unlikely to come before 2020, and whoever wins the election will face serious challenges, including a stagnant economy, corruption and the unresolved status of Kosovo. The central bank expects economic growth of just 0.5 per cent in 2012, unemployment stands at over 20 per cent, and greater fiscal retrenchment is necessary to unfreeze vital International Monetary Fund funding.
“The next government will have to enact pretty severe austerity measures and a lot of reform, to pull Serbia’s economy out of the hole and get it moving, and to meet EU requirements,” said Jovan Kovacic, president of East-West Bridge, a Belgrade think-tank.
Mr Kovacic argues that it makes economic and political sense to hold the presidential and parliamentary elections simultaneously, to ensure a government can be formed as soon as possible to address Serbia’s problems.
While Mr Tadic is early favourite for re-election, SNS officials are confident that their party will win the most votes in the parliamentary election, as polls suggest. The DS counts on the support of its coalition partners in the new parliament, which could secure another majority. A grand coalition of the two main parties is also a possibility, despite official denials, according to Mr Kovacic, who suggests the lead of the untested and disunited SNS may come under pressure during an intensive campaign.
In contrast to previous elections, the ultranationalist challenge has faded. Kosovo is no longer a rallying call for most voters, with other issues taking precedence and many Serbs privately conceding that independence is a fait accompli.
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