Serbians failed for the third time in a year Sunday to elect a president because of low voter turnout, triggering a political crisis in the Balkan republic.

An ultranationalist with close ties to Slobodan Milosevic (searchled the ballot, underlining Serbians' discontent with the pro-Western government that ousted the dictator in 2000 and the republic's drift back to Milosevic's nationalism, which triggered the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

About 36 percent of registered voters cast ballots, preliminary official results showed, less than the 50 percent needed to validate the vote.

Tomislav Nikolic (searchwas ahead with 44 percent of vote, the state electoral commission said. Dragoljub Micunovic (search), a pro-democracy candidate who led pre-election polls, trailed with only 38 percent. Four other candidates shared the rest of the vote.

"This is a defeat for Serbia," Micunovic said, adding he hoped voters would "learn their lessons" in democracy ahead of the upcoming key parliamentary elections in December.

The failed election left Serbia in a power vacuum. Parliament was dissolved last week because the pro-Western government lost parliamentary support, leaving no one to call a presidential new vote. New general elections were set for Dec. 28.

Serbia's Vice Prime Minister Zarko Korac described the election results as a "tragedy for Serbia."

"We are entering a dangerous, dramatic, phase of our future," Korac said.

Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic (searchsaid there was no need to panic because his outgoing government would lead the republic until the December elections.

Stjepan Gredelj, an independent election analyst who monitored the vote, blamed the low turnout on disillusionment with the country's leadership, which has failed to bring economic progress to Serbia following a decade of war that led to Yugoslavia's breakup and the ouster of Milosevic.

Labor protests are on the rise, and people are generally dissatisfied with their living standards in Serbia, which with the much smaller republic of Montenegro formed Serbia-Montenegro, the country that replaced Yugoslavia.

"The politicians are getting what they deserve," Gredelj said.

The last two elections, at the end of last year, also foundered because of low voter turnout. The post of president has been vacant since a Milosevic ally, Milan Milutinovic, stepped down in January to face war crimes charges at a U.N. court in The Hague, the Netherlands.

Nikolic, 51, of the pro-Milosevic Serbian Radical party, had been banking that disillusionment with democracy and the West would help his cause. He has pledged not to extradite more Serbs to the U.N. tribunal to answer war crimes charges.

Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj is in The Hague awaiting his war crimes trial together with Milosevic and several other former top Serbian leaders. Nikolic said he was dedicating his first-place finish to Seselj.

"I had expected this. ... Sadly the turnout was low. We are now looking forward," Nikolic said.

Aleksandar Vucic, an official of Nikolic's Radical Party, said the election results presented an "immense triumph" and predicted that the party would do well in the December parliamentary elections.

"The Serbian Radical Party has become the single strongest party," he said. "I am sure this heralds Serbia's political future."

There are no more armed conflicts in the region, but the threat of instability remains amid the social and political crises.

In March, Serbia's first post-Milosevic prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, the republic's first democratic leader since World War II, was assassinated, allegedly by crime bosses and Milosevic-era paramilitary commanders.

One violent incident related to the vote was reported in Kosovo, the province that is part of Serbia but has been under U.N. and NATO authority since the 1998-1999 war over the territory between Serbian government troops and ethnic Albanian separatists.

Shortly after midnight, attackers smashed windows at the only polling station in the province's capital, Pristina, said Dragan Stolic, an election supervisor. It was one of a few places where Kosovo's remaining Serbs could vote. The province's ethnic Albanians, who want independence for Kosovo, ignored the elections.