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Serbs vote in polls overshadowed by war in Ukraine

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Serbs flocked to the polls on Sunday in an election that is likely to see populist President Aleksandar Vucic extend his rule in the Balkan country as he pledges to provide stability amid war raging in Ukraine.

The country of about seven million people will elect the president and members of the 250-seat parliament and vote in several municipal contests.

Polling stations officially closed at 8:00 p.m. (6:00 p.m. GMT) local time, with unofficial results expected later that evening.

Latest surveys show that Vucic’s centre-right Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) maintains control over parliament, while the president is set to win a second term.

“Personally, I see stable progress and I voted in accordance with this opinion,” Milovan Krstic, a 52-year-old civil servant, told AFP after voting in Belgrade.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has cast a shadow over a contest that observers say will focus on environmental issues, corruption and rights.

Vucic has skillfully used the return of war in Europe as well as the coronavirus pandemic to his advantage, promising voters continued stability in uncertain headwinds.

“We expect a huge victory. This is what we have been working for for the past four or five years, and we believe that we will continue the great efforts and development of this country,” the president said after addressing voted early Sunday.

Serbia’s main opposition candidate, Zdravko Ponos, said he hoped the contest would provide a pathway to institute “serious change” in the country.

“I hope for a bright future. Elections are the right way to change the situation. I hope the citizens of Serbia will try their luck today,” Ponos said.

In the capital Belgrade, the election was briefly marred by scuffles between parliamentary candidate Pavle Grbovic and Vucic’s SNS supporters, as well as scattered reports of petty skirmishes and voter intimidation.

The country’s electoral commission has predicted turnout is likely to hover around 60%, a jump of nearly 10 points from the last general election in 2020.

Serbs from the former breakaway province of Kosovo also took part in the contest and boarded around 40 northbound buses to vote, after authorities in Pristina refused to allow polling stations on its ground.

A decade in power

Just a few months ago, the opposition seemed to have gained momentum.

In January, Vucic shut down a controversial lithium mine project following mass protests that saw tens of thousands take to the streets.

The move was a rare defeat for Vucic, who served in a variety of positions including prime minister, president and deputy prime minister, as well as a stint as defense chief for a decade in power.

Polls predict he will win again on Sunday even as the opposition hope high turnout could force a runoff.

Analysts, however, believe the opposition is unlikely to dethrone Vucic or eat away at his parliamentary coalition, which holds the lion’s share of seats.

The president has also carefully managed the country’s response to the war in Ukraine by formally condemning Russia at the United Nations but stopping short of sanctioning Moscow at home, where many Serbs have a favorable view of the Kremlin.

The opposition, in turn, has largely refrained from attacking Vucic’s position on the conflict, fearing that any calls for tougher measures against Russia will backfire at the polls.

Vucic also headed into the election with a plethora of other upsides.

After a decade at the helm, he has increasingly tightened his grip on the various levers of power, including de facto control of much of the media and government departments.

In the months leading up to the campaign, the president rolled out a range of financial aid offers to select groups, prompting critics to say he was trying to “buy” votes ahead of the contest.