BELGRADE - An ally of late autocrat Slobodan Milosevic edged ahead of the pro-Western incumbent in Serbia's presidential election yesterday, but failed to win an outright majority, according to independent monitors and partial official results.
Radical Party leader Tomislav Nikolic and incumbent Boris Tadic's campaigns said they were preparing for a Feb. 3 runoff.
The electoral commission, giving preliminary results after counting 30 percent of ballots, said that so far Nikolic had 38 percent support, while Tadic had 35 percent. The commission said the final results, to be issued today, were not likely to be much different.
Belgrade's Center for Free Elections and Democracy, which independently counted votes alongside election officials, said Nikolic had received about 39 percent compared with 35 percent for Tadic.
"We can conclude that there will be a runoff," said Zoran Lucic, an official of the independent monitoring group. "The runoff will be extremely tight."
Looming over the vote is the expected declaration of independence next month by the separatist Kosovo Province, Serbia's medieval heartland and now dominated by ethnic Albanians who seek independence.
Both Tadic and Nikolic reject independence for Kosovo, but Nikolic - unlike the current president - has promised tough measures against countries that recognize Kosovo's statehood.
The vote also could determine whether the troubled Balkan nation will move closer to the European Union or sink back into isolation similar to that of the era of Milosevic, who died in 2006 before his genocide trial could be completed.
Nikolic has sought to evoke Serbs' nationalist pride and has played on the growing frustration over US and EU support for Kosovo independence. A Milosevic ally, Nikolic ruled alongside the former president in the 1990s. His return to power would be likely to bury Serbia's EU aspirations and push the country back into isolation.
"Serbia has shown that it wants a change," he said after the vote. "We have the basis for a victory in the second round. We were never closer to a final victory. No one can stop us."
Tadic advocates Western-style reforms and integration into the European Union, after more than a decade of isolation and wars under Milosevic. His campaign had cast the election as offering citizens a choice between a "road ahead and an errant road" back into isolation.
"I will not allow pessimism to rule Serbia again . . . I will not allow my opponent Tomislav Nikolic to be a president," Tadic said. "I will not allow us to return to the 1990s."