By Neil MacDonald and Stefan Wagstyl in Belgrade
February 3 2008 22:56
Boris Tadic, Serbia’s pro-western president, on Sunday defeated Tomislav Nikolic, his nationalist rival, in a bitterly-contested election fought under the shadow of the imminent loss of the disputed territory of Kosovo.
His victory signals that Serbs are ready to put integration with the European Union ahead of their anger with the west over the ethnic Albanian-dominated province, due very soon to declare independence.
“I can announce that we won in these presidential elections. I congratulate all the citizens on our being a European democracy. We have shown to many EU member countries the democratic potential of this country.”
According to the Centre for Free Elections and Democracy, an independent monitoring organisation, Mr Tadic won 50.3 per cent against 48.1 per cent for Mr Nikolic with more than 90 per cent of the vote counted.
Mr Nikolic conceded defeat late on Sunday night and called for calm. However, some of his supporters were bitter.
Analysts pointed out that Mr Tadic owed victory to the backing of ethnic Hungarians and other minorities while, among ethnic Serbs, Mr Nikolic had won.
Mr Tadic’s win will come as a relief to the US and leading EU states which are preparing to back Kosovo’s independence declaration. Mr Tadic has consistently opposed Kosovo’s independence but a Nikolic win might have encouraged Serbs to turn their backs on the west and possibly prompted extremists to resort to violence.
Mr Tadic’s officials said they were now looking forward to an acceleration of integration talks with the EU, starting this Thursday with the signing of a political agreement on a pre-accession pact.
Bozidar Djelic, the deputy prime minister and a leading member of Mr Tadic’s Democratic Party, said Serbia deserved recognition for voting for democracy and European integration even though “political tensions” were at their peak with people angry over Kosovo and the low standard of living.
After a first round setback last month, Mr Tadic ran an aggressive campaign before Sunday’s run-off, warning voters of the dangers of a return to the isolation of the 1990s.
Mr Nikolic, candidate for the hard-line nationalist Serb Radical party, also won the first round four years ago before then losing the run-off. This time he picked up more votes on the back of widespread resentment about uneven wealth distribution.
The result will raise questions over the stability of the government coalition headed by Vojislav Kostunica, the nationalist-leaning prime minister who rules jointly with the Democrats. Mr Kostunica refused to endorse Mr Tadic before Sunday’s vote.