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Serbians vote to pick president, parliament amid Ukraine war

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By Reuters

BELGRADE -Serbians headed to the polls on Sunday in presidential and parliamentary elections that pit incumbent President Aleksandar Vucic and his Progressive Party against an opposition pledging to fight corruption and improve environmental protection.

Vucic is running for a second five-year term on a promise of peace and stability at a time of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has put Serbia under pressure from the West to choose between its traditional ties with Moscow and aspirations to join the European Union (EU).

Polling stations for Serbia’s estimated 6.5 million electorate opened at 0500 GMT and will close at 1800 GMT. Polling group CRTA said turnout until 1 p.m. (1100 GMT) was 26.7%, compared to 22.9% in 2020.

First preliminary results are expected around 9.30 p.m. (1930 GMT).

CESiD pollster reported several irregularities including photographing voting ballots.

N1 TV station reported one of the opposition leaders, Pavle Grbovic, was beaten up in front of his polling station in Belgrade and showed footage of the incident filmed by a mobile phone. Grbovic confirmed the incident on Twitter.

Polls show Vucic, a conservative, on course to win in the first round, ahead of Zdravko Ponos, a retired army general who is the candidate for the pro-European and centrist Alliance for the Victory coalition.

“I expect Vucic to win. He has proven to be capable of running the country,” Zorica Jovanovic, a pensioner told Reuters after casting the ballot. “If it were not for him we would not have had enough COVID-19 vaccines.”

The opposition largely boycotted a parliamentary election in 2020, allowing the Progressive Party (SNS) and its allies to secure 188 seats in the 250-seat parliament.

“Of course we do expect a huge victory, that’s what we worked for the last four or five years,” Vucic told reporters after voting.

Voters from Kosovo, Serbia’s former province which proclaimed independence in 2008, were taken to polling stations in Serbia by buses.

SHADOW OF WAR

Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine has had a big impact on campaigning in Serbia, which is still recovering from the Balkan wars and isolation of the 1990s.

Serbia is almost entirely dependant on Russian gas, while its army maintains ties with Russia’s military.

The Kremlin is also supporting Belgrade’s opposition to the independence of Kosovo, Serbia’s predominantly Albanian former southern province.

Although Serbia backed two United Nations resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it refused to impose sanctions against Moscow.

Bojan Klacar, head of the CeSID pollster, said the war forced a swing from the main campaign topics such as corruption, the environment and the rule of law.

A veteran politician who served as information minister in 1998 under former strong man Slobodan Milosevic, Vucic had transformed from a nationalist firebrand to a proponent of EU membership, but also of military neutrality and ties with Russia and China.

Ponos has accused Vucic of using the war in Ukraine in his campaign to try to capitalise on people’s fears.

Opposition and rights watchdogs also accuse Vucic and his allies of an autocratic style of rule, corruption, nepotism, controlling the media, attacks on political opponents and ties with organised crime. Vucic and his allies have repeatedly denied that.

“Elections are the right way to change the situation. I hope citizens of Serbia are going to take a chance today.” Ponos told journalists after voting.