Centre-right Prime Minister and candidate for the presidential election Aleksandar Vucic gestures during a pre-election rally of his Serbian Progressive Party, in Belgrade, March 24, 2017. (Photo by AFP)
Serbians are heading to the polls Sunday to elect a new president, with strongman Aleksandar Vucic hoping to tighten his grip on power amid opposition accusations that he is shifting the country to authoritarian rule.
Vucic, the 47-year-old current prime minister, is hoping to clinch more than 50 percent of the ballot in the Sunday election, winning a five-year mandate as president outright.
Most surveys tip Vucic for an easy victory in the face of a divided opposition. But if he fails to win a majority in the first round, a second round run-off will be held on April 16.
The post of president has largely been ceremonial in recent times, but analysts believe it would be a much more influential position if occupied by Vucic.
Vucic has touted economic success since becoming prime minister in 2014, achieving growth of 2.8 percent last year and cleaning up public finances.
But the average Serbian earns a mere 330 euros (355 dollars) per month while unemployment is running above 15 percent.
The opposition has been unable to field a single candidate to run against him, so Vucic faces a wide range of challengers.
There are 10 opposition candidates bidding for the presidency, including former ombudsman Sasa Jankovic, ex-foreign minister Vuk Jeremic and ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj.
And shaking up the race is Luka Maksimovic.
Using the fictional name of Ljubisa Preletacevic — nicknamed “Beli” (White) — he could even come second in the race behind Vucic, some analysts say.
Opposition candidates have presented the vote as a referendum on Vucic, whom they accuse of trying to consolidate power for himself.
A passerby walks past the electoral posters of Serbian Progressive Party (SNS)’s top candidate for the presidential election and Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, in Belgrade, March 29, 2017. (Photo by AFP)
Ultranationalist Seselj argues that, “All power should not be concentrated in the hands of a single man, Aleksandar Vucic.”
Vucic has run a typically aggressive campaign, with a video showing a plane marked “Serbia 2017” about to crash for a lack of leadership. He has accused opponents of receiving “millions of euros (from) certain foreign countries,” without offering specifics.
The opposition fears electoral fraud, particularly in Albanian-dominated Kosovo, where some 120,000 Serbs live.
Some 6.7 million eligible voters can cast their ballots from 7:00 am (0500 GMT) to 8:00 pm. The first results are expected before midnight.
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