BELGRADE, Serbia – Around 6.7 million voters in Serbia choose a new president in an election Sunday that will test the popularity of the dominant, populist prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic, against 10 beleaguered candidates from the fragmented opposition.
Vucic, a former firebrand ultranationalist now a declared European Union supporter, is a clear favorite to win. His support is hovering around 50 percent. If he gets more than half the vote on Sunday, he would avoid a runoff election on April 16 in which the opposition could coalesce behind a single candidate.
Critics say he wants to establish the kind of autocracy seen in Russia under Vladimir Putin, who has endorsed Vucic's presidential bid. Opposition candidates have accused him of mudslinging, controlling the media and intimidating voters ahead of the election.
Vucic denies such accusations, but his overwhelming media dominance was apparent on the eve of the vote when seven major newspapers featured the same front pages: Vucic's campaign poster.
Out of 10 opposition candidates running against Vucic, only three or four can expect to reach 10 percent of the votes.
The former extreme nationalist has sought to rebrand himself as a pro-EU reformer. He has tries to project an image of a firm but just statesman who is working hard for the nation, keeping it independent and proud. Vucic says an opposition president would mean instability and insecurity — thus playing on the Serbs' fears of the repeat of the 1990s crisis years when ex-strongman Slobodan Milosevic's warmongering policies left tens of thousands dead and millions homeless. Vucic was Milosevic's information minister.
The 47-year-old insists he will carry out economic and social reforms needed for the country to enter the EU, while strengthening close links with traditional ally Russia. Vucic visited President Vladimir Putin in Moscow this week, in an apparent bid to boost support at home among pro-Russians.
Jeremic, 41, is a former foreign minister who last year ran for the post of U.N. Secretary General and served as the head of the U.N. General Assembly before that. He stresses his rich diplomatic experience, and has waged a Western-style campaign with his wife, former state TV anchor Natasa Jeremic, by his side. She was accused by the ruling party during the campaign of being Serbia's biggest drug boss, triggering a public backlash which increased her husband's support. Running as an independent, Jeremic is supported by right-leaning opposition groups. He says Serbia should never recognize the independence of breakaway Kosovo and should keep close to Russia.
A political newcomer, Jankovic won international and domestic praise while serving as Serbia's first Ombudsman, or citizens' rights defender — a position he abandoned to bid for the presidency. Running as an independent, the 46-year-old lawyer is supported by liberal opposition parties, rights organizations and some prominent individuals. Jankovic has stressed his public service record, and also has appealed to many for his low-key lifestyle that contrasts strongly with the corrupt elite.
The media and communications student is running as a grotesque parody politician in a white suit, oversized jewelry and a man-bun. In videos on social networks, Maksimovic's alter ego, Ljubisa Beli Preletacevic, is shown doing pushups, sucking a raw egg or riding a white horse surrounded by mock bodyguards. Maksimovic's supporters are mostly young voters alienated by decades of crisis and economic decline.
Seselj, the extreme right-wing leader of the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party, is notorious for his aggressiveness and loud behavior. He helped organize dreaded paramilitary units during the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but was acquitted of war crimes by a U.N. court in the Netherlands. The case is under appeal, but Seselj has pledged to ignore any ruling that results. He wants Serbia to abandon its EU bid and join a union with Russia. Seselj was Vucic's mentor in the 1990s.
Dusan Stojanovic contributed.