Serbians went to the polls Sunday to elect a new president, with conservative Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic the runaway favorite despite opposition accusations he is steering the nation toward authoritarian rule.
Vucic, 47, is hoping to clinch more than 50 percent of the ballot, 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.
According to the electoral commission, some 10.5 percent of some 6.7 million eligible voters cast their ballot in first three hours of vote.
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) per month while unemployment is running above 15 percent.
The opposition has been unable to field a united candidate to run against him, so Vucic faces a wide range of challengers.
There are 10 opposition candidates bidding for president, including former ombudsman Sasa Jankovic, ex-foreign minister Vuk Jeremic and ultra-nationalist Vojislav Seselj.
And shaking up the race is Luka Maksimovic. Jankovic and a host of opposition candidates risk being embarrassed by the 25-year-old communications student, whose alter ego Ljubisa “Beli” Preletacevic has come from almost nowhere to challenge them for second place.
Dressed in a white suit and loafers, the pony-tailed Maksimovic plays on a widely-held perception of Balkan politicians as greedy cheats. Despite economic growth and greater fiscal stability, Serbia remains mired in poverty and corruption.
“I voted for Beli,” said 30-year-old Dejan Markovic, an unemployed metal worker. “The so-called opposition candidates have betrayed us in the past and Vucic is lying to us all now, so Beli is the only way to mock all this hypocrisy.”
To his supporters, Vucic is a cool head and a firm hand in a troubled region.
“I voted for stability, we’ve had enough wars,” said Bozica Ivanovic, a 65-year-old pensioner who voted for Vucic. “We need more jobs for younger people and if we can get higher pensions and salaries, even better.”
Vucic’s opponents, however, say he has an authoritarian streak that has led him to take control over the media in Serbia since his party rose to power in 2012 and he became prime minister three years ago.
He denies the charge but has struggled to shake it given his record when last in government in the dying days of Yugoslavia.
Then in his late 20s, Vucic was Serbia’s feared information minister behind draconian legislation designed to muzzle criticism of the government during the 1998-99 Kosovo war.
“We want above all to give back dignity to Serbian citizens and meaning to state institutions,” Jankovic, who was polling a distant second or third before Sunday’s vote, said after casting his ballot.