A tram passes an election billboard showing the leader of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) Tomislav Nikolic in Belgrade, May 19. Polling stations opened across Serbia Sunday for the final round of presidential elections with surveys predicting victory for incumbent Boris Tadic over his nationalist challenger Nikolic
AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
BELGRADE: Voters across Serbia headed to the polls Sunday to elect a new president in a run-off with the incumbent pro-European Boris Tadic set for a victory over nationalist challenger Tomislav Nikolic.
Surveys published just ahead of the final round of the presidential election showed Tadic, 54, leading with 58 percent, while Nikolic had 42 percent.
Tadic, who brought the once international pariah state to the doorstep of the European Union with candidacy status in March, is seeking his third and final five-year mandate which he said would be dedicated to his country's European integration and economic development.
He came just ahead of Nikolic in the May 6 first round, but the nationalist challenger accused Tadic of "vote fraud".
The claims were dismissed both by Serbia's prosecutor and electoral officials but they have cast a shadow over the polls.
Nikolic, a one-time ally of the late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, is a recent convert to the European cause. He has vowed to steer a pro-EU course but also warned he would not let Serbia join the bloc at any cost.
"I support a two-door policy, both towards the East and the West," he said in a heated TV debate with Tadic last week, accusing the incumbent of favouring only cooperation with the EU and US.
The 60-year-old opposition leader campaigned on populist promises, like a tax hike for the rich to be used to increase pensions and welfare payments.
Tadic pulled ahead of Nikolic after he won an important backing from the Socialists, the third biggest party in the Serbian parliament since legislative polls held two weeks ago.
At a Belgrade polling station 65-year-old pensioner Ljubica Protic was one of the first to vote early Sunday.
"I am hoping for a better future, for me that is personified by Boris Tadic," she told AFP.
"Tomislav Nicolic ... has never been in power, I have only heard talk from him".
Tadic became Serbia's first non-communist leader since World War II in 2004, defeating Nikolic in a run-off, a victory he repeated four years later.
He has vowed that, if elected, Serbia will start EU membership talks by the end of this year, with the aim of joining in five years.
"May 20 is going to bring a big democratic decision -- whether we will remain a stable country, or one burdened with problems," Tadic told a final pre-poll rally.
Whoever emerges as president will have to introduce painful reforms in order to restore the economic stability of Serbia where 24 percent of 7.5 million inhabitants are unemployed, one of the highest jobless rates in Europe.
Besides tackling economic problems, the president is also expected to boost further talks between Belgrade and Pristina aimed at improving relations between Serbia and its breakaway province Kosovo -- a key condition for its EU integration.
More than 6.7 million eligible voters can cast their ballots at more than 8,500 polling stations until 8 pm (1800 GMT). The first preliminary results are expected during the evening.