BELGRADE – Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic claimed victory in Sunday’s general election after projections showed him winning by a landslide.
Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party was on track to win around half of the vote, with his Socialist coalition partners in second place with around 11 per cent, according to independent observers at the Centre for Free Elections and Democracy (CESID).
The far-right Radicals were also set to return to parliament after four years without seats, led by ultra-nationalist Vojislav Seselj who was recently acquitted of war crimes charges arising from the 1990s Balkan conflicts.
The Radicals were expected to win more than seven per cent of the vote, CESID said, clearing the five per cent threshold to give them a platform in parliament for their strongly anti-Western and pro-Russian views.
Premier since 2014, 46-year-old Vucic had called the early election saying he needed a clear mandate to press ahead with the potentially unpopular reforms required to join the European Union.
But critics saw the vote as an attempt to consolidate power, expressing concerns about Vucic’s authoritarian tendencies including curbs on media freedom.
A former Seselj ally turned centrist politician, Vucic said in a victory speech late on Sunday that the results showed support for reforms and "European integration", handing him a "huge responsibility".
"I know where we should go, I know how to ensure the future of Serbia and how to work hard to get there." European Commissioner Johannes Hahn was among the first to congratulate Vucic on Twitter.
Serbia, home to seven million people, opened the first stages in EU membership negotiations in December, although Brussels has said there will be no further enlargement of the bloc until 2020.
The election was Serbia’s third in four years and enthusiasm appeared in short supply as voters queued at polling stations.
"We have elections too often," retired 68-year-old Jelica Nikolic said in Belgrade, saying she and her husband Radomir were voting more out of duty than conviction.
In the southwestern city of Novi Pazar, Edib Mahmutovic, 40, hoped the victors would "create new jobs that enable us to stay here and not have to look for a better life elsewhere in Europe".
Turnout was around 55 per cent, higher than in 2014.
It remained unclear how many other parties would enter parliament, with several of the fractured opposition groups hovering around the five per cent threshold in projected results.
Powerful Vucic will now face the task of reforming inefficient state-run companies and the bloated public sector, measures required by the EU and as part of a loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund.
Serbia remains one of the poorest countries in Europe, with unemployment at about 20 per cent and an average monthly wage of about 360 euros ($292). — AFP