BELGRADE, Serbia – Serbia's powerful prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic, is hoping to strengthen his already firm hold on power after Sunday's snap general election.
Vucic has called the vote two years early, saying he wanted a clear, new mandate to steer Serbia further toward European Union membership. Critics say Vucic wants to consolidate power while his popularity is still high.
A veteran politician who has transformed from radical anti-Western nationalist into a pro-EU reformer, Vucic has positioned himself as a dominant player both in Serbia and wider in the postwar Balkans.
He has won praise from the EU for efforts to reconnect broken Balkan ties, promote reconciliation and push through some tough economic reforms. However, the 46-year-old faces accusations at home of creating a one-man rule in the style of Russia's President Vladimir Putin.
"He has taken over the entire (political) scene," said Dragoljub Zarkovic, editor-in-chief of the liberal Vreme weekly. "Our lives start with Vucic in the morning and the last thing we see before we go to bed is Vucic."
A skillful politician who entered politics in his 20s, Vucic has taken center stage, outmaneuvered his political opponents and pushed them to the margins of Serbia's political scene, Zarkovic said.
Pre-election polls suggest that Vucic and his Serbian Progressive Party could win about half of the ballots, with the rest divided among all other groups.
"It is like when we were kids and played football," Zarkovic said. "Only Vucic has the ball now and he gets to play."
Vucic has complained of being the target of constant attacks by numerous adversaries, and has sought to portray himself as a hard-working prime minister whose sacrifice is not appreciated enough.
"We have never been closer to losing an election," he said just weeks before the vote.
Twice-married with two children, Vucic has guarded his privacy and is known almost exclusively as a politician — and as a former Red Star Belgrade soccer fan.
He started out as an ardent nationalist advocating the idea of Greater Serbia — an all-Serb land on crumbling Yugoslavia's territory — which triggered a series of wars.
Ambitious and sharp-tongued, Vucic climbed swiftly up the ranks of the extremist Serbian Radical Party, positioning himself close to the party leader Vojislav Seselj and becoming one of the most prominent nationalist politicians during the war era of the 1990s.
In one of his darkest moments, Vucic served as the information minister in Slobodan Milosevic's government in late 1990s, championing punitive laws against liberal media. He personally signed the orders to expel some foreign media at the start of the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999.
Vucic switched sides in 2008, splitting from the Radicals to form new, center-right Progressives, together with the current Serbian president, Tomislav Nikolic. Vucic toned down his rhetoric, polished his appearance and turned into an EU advocate looking into the future, not the past.
To showcase the change, Vucic last year attended the commemoration ceremony in Srebrenica, where Serb troops massacred some 8,000 Muslim boys and men in 1995, and was pelted with rocks.
"The policies of Greater Serbia are not the policies of the future," he recently said. "Those are not the policies of the Serbian government and never will be."
Vucic now insists he is the defense against far-right groups seeking to abolish Serbia's EU prospects. He says good ties with Russia are important, but only along with EU integration.
Pro-Russian groups are expected to return to Parliament after Sunday's vote, after being pushed aside for years. Pro-Western opposition is fragmented and sidelined, with Vucic taking over the role of a modernizer despite a controversial record on democratic freedoms.
Supporters, like 67-year-old retired physiotherapist Suncica Vodusek, view Vucic as a committed leader working tirelessly to restart the economy and make life better for ordinary people.
"He is ready to cooperate with everyone, Europe, Russia, America," Vodusek said. "Anything that is good for our Serbia."
But, Zarkovic says Vucic has abolished dialogue in Serbia, at a dire cost for the country's fragile democracy. He says Vucic's policies are far from clear.
"He is like a vacuum cleaner, sucking in everything he can," Zarkovic said. "He is ready for any transformation and he is ready to survive that transformation with tricks."