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Balkans

Serbia votes in snap parliamentary elections

Serbians are voting for a new parliament in snap elections. The Balkan country faces severe economic problems as it seeks to join the European Union - a process that could take years.

Serbia's Central Election Commission reported sluggish voter turnout early on Sunday. A quarter of the way through election day, nine percent of the electorate had cast their ballot, compared to 11 percent during the same time frame in 2012.

Some 6.7 million Serbians are eligible to vote for a new 250-seat parliament in snap elections on Sunday, with the ruling center-right Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) expected to capitalize on popularity gained after successfully opening talks with Brussels to join the EU.

Years of negotiations and tough reforms are likely before any accession takes place.

Pre-election surveys showed the SNS polling at 44 percent support while its Socialist coalition partners had 14 percent support. The opposition Democratic Party trailed on around 11 percent.

Emerging from isolation

Belgrade recently began emerging from political isolation in Europe, after making strides to improve relations with neighboring Kosovo.

Pristina seceded from Belgrade's rule with the support of a NATO bombing campaign in 1999. The Albanian-majority republic officially declared its independence in 2008, a move that Serbia still refuses to recognize.

But for many voters he Serbian economy has become the more pressing issue, with nearly a quarter of the country's workforce unemployed. Those who do have jobs earn an average salary of just 350 euros ($480) per month. Meanwhile, public debt has risen to 60 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), leading to calls for labor reform and the streamlining of government bureaucracy.

The Socialists, led by incumbent Prime Minister Uvica Dacic, joined forces with the SNS after elections in 2012.

Anti-graft drive

SNS leader Alekander Vuciv, who was once a fierce ultranationalist before turning pro-European, is tipped to become Serbia's next prime minister.

"We need a landslide victory to create new jobs, firmly pursue reforms and fight corruption with full force," Vucic told SNS supporters at a final rally before voting.

He spearheaded his party's gain in popularity with an anti-graft drive which led to the arrest of several tycoons and former ministers.

Former Milosevic ally

The opposition Democrats, who held power from 2000 until 2012 - after the ouster of the strongman Slobodan Milosevic - hac warned voters against handing too much power to Vucic, who was deputy premier in the outgoing government.

In the late 1990s, Vuciv clamped down on newspapers while information minister under Milosevic, who died in 2006 during his war crimes trial before the Hague-based court.

Hundreds of international and local observers are monitoring Sunday's election. Preliminary results are expected early Monday, with final results due by March 20.

slk/ipj(AFP, dpa)