An ally of late autocrat Slobodan Milosevic edged ahead of the pro-Western incumbent in Serbia's presidential election Sunday, but failed to win an outright majority, according to independent monitors and partial official results.
Radical Party leader Tomislav Nikolic and incumbent Boris Tadic's campaigns said they were preparing for a Feb. 3 runoff.
The electoral commission, giving preliminary results after counting 30 percent of ballots, said that so far Nikolic had 38 percent support, while Tadic had 35 percent. The commission said the final results, to be issued Monday, were not likely to be much different.
Belgrade's Center for Free Elections and Democracy, which independently counted votes alongside election officials, said Nikolic had received about 39 percent compared with 35 percent for Tadic.
'Tight' runoff expected
"We can conclude that there will be a runoff," said Zoran Lucic, an official of the independent monitoring group. "The runoff will be extremely tight."
Looming over the vote is the expected declaration of independence next month by the separatist Kosovo province, Serbia's medieval heartland and now dominated by pro-independence ethnic Albanians.
Both Tadic and Nikolic reject independence for Kosovo, but Nikolic — unlike the current president — has promised tough measures against countries that recognize Kosovo's statehood.
The vote also could determine whether the troubled Balkan nation will move closer to the European Union or sink back into isolation similar to that of the era of Milosevic, who died in 2006 before his genocide trial could be completed.
Nikolic has sought to evoke Serbs' nationalist pride and has played on the growing frustration over U.S. and EU backing for Kosovo independence. A Milosevic ally, Nikolic ruled alongside the former president in the 1990s. His return to power likely would bury Serbia's EU aspirations and push the country back into isolation.
"Serbia has shown that it wants a change," he said after the vote. "We have the basis for a victory in the second round. We were never closer to a final victory. No one can stop us."
Milosevic a factor
Tadic advocates Western-style reforms and integration into the European Union, after more than a decade of isolation and wars under Milosevic. His campaign had cast the election as offering citizens a choice between a "road ahead and an errant road" back into isolation.
"I will not allow pessimism to rule Serbia again ... I will not allow my opponent Tomislav Nikolic to be a president," Tadic said. "I will not allow us to return to the 1990s."
Without revealing whom he voted for, Belgrade neurology researcher Sasa Radovanovic said he hoped "we would not go backward" after the election. "We have already lost too much time," said the 41-year-old father of three.
Danica Markovic, 53, an unemployed bank clerk, saw things differently. "Things were better once; we had Kosovo and our pride. Now we have nothing," she said.
The monitoring group said that 61 percent of Serbia's 6.7 million eligible voters had cast ballots — the largest turnout since 2000, when Milosevic lost power, and more than in 2004, when Nikolic edged ahead of Tadic in the first round but lost in a runoff.
More than 100,000 people were allowed to vote in Kosovo, where balloting was organized only in Serb-held municipalities. Ethnic Albanians have boycotted Serbian elections since the early 1990s.
Nine candidates ran in Sunday's election, but only Tadic and Nikolic were considered serious contenders.