BELGRADE, Serbia — A pro-European Union candidate and a nationalist opponent are headed for a runoff in Serbia's presidential elections, while the ruling pro-Western party is likely to form the next coalition government, independent pollsters said Sunday.
The Center for Free Elections and Democracy said its unofficial complete count showed the previous president, Boris Tadic of the Democratic Party, taking 26.7 percent of the votes, while populist Serbian Progressive Party leader Tomislav Nikolic has 25.5 percent.
The pollsters said the results are similar in the parallel parliamentary vote, meaning the Democrats are likely to form the next Cabinet with the Socialists, who came in third – just like they did after the last vote four years ago.
The "Democratic Party will be at the core of the future government," party official Dragan Sutanovac said.
Nikolic, a somber former cemetery manager, predicted he will win the runoff.
"The victory is within reach," Nikolic said. "We will have a new government and a new president."
The general elections represented a sharp choice between the Democrats or nationalists, who were trying to come back to power for the first time since their former Balkan strongman ally Slobodan Milosevic was ousted in 2000.
The election for president, Parliament and local authorities could affect the pace of Serbia's EU-demanded economic and social reforms. The country faced international isolation under Milosevic in the 1990s for his warmongering policies.
The result also could affect Serbia's reconciliation with its neighbors and wartime foes, including the former province of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008.
The two leading election contenders were Tadic, and Milosevic's former ally, Nikolic, who hoped to capitalize on the EU's economic troubles, which have dimmed the bloc's allure for many Serbs. The vote came amid the country's deep economic crisis – including a 24 percent unemployment rate – and huge public discontent with plummeting living standards.
Tadic said if he and his Democrats win, they will quickly form a new government.
"I expect that Serbia will continue on its reform path," Tadic, a 54-year-old former psychology professor, said after casting his ballot. "Better life, better living standards for ordinary people is our strategic goal."
One voter – Ljubinka Marjanovic, a high school teacher from Belgrade – said: "It's not much of a choice we're having: Tadic's corrupt government or those ... nationalists who want to return us to the past. But I had to vote for Europe, for the future of my grandchildren."
Nikolic claims to have shifted from being staunchly anti-Western to pro-EU. But that is not taken at face value by many Serbs and Western officials because the former far-right politician only a few years ago stated that he would rather see Serbia become a Russian province than an EU member.
Tadic, considered a moderate, advocates quick EU entry, while Nikolic, who had Russian support, said he wants to see Serbia "both in the West and East."
Nikolic said Serbia should not be an EU member if the bloc demands that Serbia give up its claim on Kosovo, which is considered the cradle of the Serbian state and religion. Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo's declaration of independence.
Tensions were high in Kosovo on Sunday as minority Serbs defied ethnic Albanian authorities and voted in the Serbian elections. NATO has recently reinforced its quick-reaction battalion in Kosovo, bringing its total strength to about 7,000 troops, because of the tensions caused by the vote.
Tadic's popularity was threatened because of Serbia's economic problems and alleged corruption among the ruling elite. Faced with the global financial crisis, which slowed down much needed foreign investments, his government has seen major job losses and falling living standards.
Nikolic tried to get voter support by criticizing widespread social injustice and by promising jobs, financial security and billions of dollars in foreign investments if he and his party win the election.
Nikolic's victory in the second round of the presidential vote would represent the return of the nationalists for the first time since Milosevic was ousted 12 years ago. Milosevic died in his prison cell during his war crimes trial at a U.N. tribunal in the Netherlands in 2006.
Associated Press writer Jovana Gec contributed to this report.