Nationalist candidate Tomislav Nikolic won the Serbian presidency on Sunday, a result that adds to the political turmoil in the Balkan country and could slow down its attempts to join the European Union.
The Center for Free Elections and Democracy, an independent polling group, said Nikolic won 49.4 percent of the vote, while pro-European Union incumbent Boris Tadic received 47.4 percent. Tadic conceded defeat, saying, "I wish Nikolic the best of luck." The results are expected to be officially confirmed by Monday.
The outcome was a sign of the fading allure of the EU, which is plagued by a debt crisis, and voter discontent with Serbia's weak economy.
Nikolic must name a prime minister, but that task has been complicated because of the outcome of the May 6 parliamentary election. Although Nikolic's Progressive Party won the most seats, Tadic's Democrats have tentatively agreed on an alliance with Socialists that would give them a majority. Nikolic has claimed the May 6 vote was marred by fraud.
"We'll see what will happen," Nikolic said as his supporters chanted his nickname, "Tomo the Serb," on the main squares in Serbian cities.
The outcome also could hugely impact Serbia's plans to become an EU member, a major step for a country that was a pariah state under late autocrat Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s. It also could determine whether Serbia continues to reconcile with its neighbors and wartime foes, including the former province of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008. Serbia has refused to recognize Kosovo's independence.
Nikolic, who narrowly lost two earlier presidential votes to Tadic, claimed to have shifted from being staunchly anti-Western to pro-EU. But that change is widely believed to be a ploy to gain more votes. Nikolic has close ties with Russia and has in the past even envisaged Serbia as a Russian province.
"Serbia will not stray from its European road," Nikolic, a former ultranationalist ally of wartime Serbian leader Milosevic, insisted Sunday. "This day is a crossroad for Serbia."
He added that Serbia must "get rid" of poverty and corruption.
Tadic, who championed Serbia's bid to become an EU member, was leading the pre-runoff polls, but Nikolic's nationalist supporters appeared to have more enthusiasm for casting their ballots. Election observers said turnout was about 10 percent lower than in 2008, when Tadic beat Nikolic by a slight margin.
Tadic built his presidential bid around pro-Western policies, but his biggest problem was the economic downturn and corruption within the ruling elite. Faced with the financial crisis in Europe and beyond, which slowed down much-needed foreign investment, Tadic's government has seen massive job losses and plummeting living standards.
Nikolic's populism struck a chord with voters, who warmed to his criticism of widespread social injustice and corruption in Serbia and promises of jobs, financial security and billions of dollars in foreign investment.
Tadic took a more conciliatory stance toward Serbia's neighbors and war foes in the 1990s, including Kosovo, the former province that nationalists consider the cradle of Serbia's state and religion. Nikolic has said he would abandon the EU plan if it means that Serbia must give up the claim to Kosovo, and he has forged an alliance with the staunchly anti-EU party of former premier Vojislav Kostunica.
Jovana Gec contributed to this report.