The strong election showing by hardline nationalists allied to former strongman Slobodan Milosevic (searchhas left Serbia's fractured pro-democracy groups with little choice but to unite or risk seeing a slide toward authoritarianism.

Milosevic, who is currently imprisoned in The Hague (search), and three other war crimes suspects are candidates in Sunday's parliamentary elections, and could win seats.

Preliminary results showed the Serbian Radical party winning, ahead of more moderate nationalists. The outgoing pro-democratic government was in third place.

The independent Center for Free Elections and Democracy (searchsaid exit polls had the Radicals with 82 seats, compared with 53 for the Democratic Party of Serbia and 37 for the Democratic Party. Full official results were not expected before Monday.

"It is important that democratic groups now form a bloc that will ensure that Serbia (searchremains on the path of democratic reforms" and focused on membership in the European Union, said Boris Tadic, the Democratic Party chief.

Although the Radicals won most seats, they still cannot form the government alone, not even with Milosevic's Socialists with whom they ruled in coalition until a popular revolt in 2000 replaced them with the now outgoing pro-Western government. The Socialists came sixth.

The failure of the post-Milosevic leadership — more than a dozen pro-democracy groups whose unity crumbled after 2000 — brought disillusionment among many Serbs and contributed to the swing back to the hardliners.

Average monthly salaries equal about $300 and the Radicals also profited from a deep anti-West feelings generated by the NATO bombing of Serbia during the 1999 Kosovo campaign.

"Serbia is on the path of political chaos," said prominent analyst Aleksandar Tijanic. He predicted that if democratic groups do not reunite, that could lead to new early elections and further gains by the Radicals.

Prominent members of the democratic bloc suggested they had learned their lesson

"We will do everything to ensure creation of a stable, democratic government," said Miroljub Labus, the leader of G17 party that won a projected 22 seats.

But with the Radicals strong, even a Serbian government that leaves them in the opposition will not be as pro-Western as the one formed after Milosevic's ouster.

Radical leader Vojislav Seselj earlier this year surrendered to the U.N. war crimes court in the Netherlands, joining Milosevic who was extradited by the pro-Western leadership in 2001 for his alleged role the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Seselj's deputy and the key figure of the Radicals' election campaign, Tomislav Nikolic, dedicated the party victory to "Seselj and other Serb inmates in The Hague" — an allusion to Milosevic.

Both Milosevic and Seselj were candidates in the elections, despite their imprisonment by the U.N court. Two other indicted war crimes suspects from other parties were also running.

The Radicals openly call for "Greater Serbia" at the expense of the republic's Balkan neighbors and have pledged to cut diplomatic ties with Serbia's main wartime rival, Croatia. They also vow not to extradite to the Hague tribunal the two top U.N. war crimes fugitives — former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his wartime military commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic.