BELGRADE (AFP) — Pro-Western forces in Serbia began tough talks on Monday to hammer out a coalition, after claiming an upset general election win that was challenged by their nationalist rivals.
President Boris Tadic said his pro-European bloc had won the polls, but without an absolute majority, meaning he would likely to need the support of at least one nationalist party to govern.
The election had been dominated by the issue of Serbian ties with the European Union, with predictions of a possible nationalist backlash over widespread EU support for Kosovo's independence.
In the end, the apparent result "undoubtedly confirmed a clear European path," Tadic said at his Democratic Party campaign headquarters.
"The Democratic Party will be the key player in the future cabinet," said the president, refusing to reveal who might be his prime minister.
"The negotiations will not be easy (but) I warn everyone not to play with the electoral will of the citizens and try to take Serbia back to the isolation of the 1990s," he said in reference to the hardline regime of late president Slobodan Milosevic.
The Democrats' expected coalition partners include the Socialist Party of Serbia, founded by Milosevic, or the Liberal Democratic Party, whose leader Cedomir Jovanovic negotiated the late strongman's arrest in 2001.
Tallies by the electoral commission, poll monitors and various parties had earlier shown that the "For a European Serbia" alliance spearheaded by the Democratic Party looked set to secure up to 39 percent of the vote.
The outcome sparked fireworks and wild celebrations on the streets of Belgrade, where cars decked out in Serbian, Democrat and EU flags honked their horns as they drove around the city centre.
However, the ultra-nationalist Radical Party warned Tadic against jumping the gun and said it might still be able to form a government.
"There is a possible coalition without the Democratic Party and we warn Serbia about that," said Radicals leader Tomislav Nikolic.
If confirmed, the results will be seen as a breakthrough for Serbia, where a series of governments have struggled for unity on the path to EU membership since Milosevic was overthrown in a popular uprising eight years ago.
Those divisions came to the fore in a spiteful campaign in which Tadic and his allies were branded "traitors" after signing a rapprochement accord with the European Union.
Most EU members have recognised Kosovo, despite Belgrade's staunch opposition.
Political analyst Vladimir Pavic urged Tadic and his partners to begin coalition talks immediately in order to "strike while the iron is hot."
"The government must be formed quickly. Citizens should quickly get proof that they have chosen wisely -- more investments, faster EU integration, steady economic values," said Pavic.
"This government will have a chance to last longer than any other since Milosevic's ouster. This opportunity must be ultilised."
The latest estimates of the non-governmental Centre for Free Elections and Democracy (CeSID) gave the Democrat-led coalition 38.7 percent versus 29.1 percent for the Radicals.
That trend was confirmed by the Republic Electoral Commission, Democratic Party, and the Radicals, which gave the DS 35.1 percent, 38.8 percent and 37.1 percent, respectively.
The Slovenian presidency of the European Union promptly hailed what it called "a clear victory" by pro-European forces, adding it hoped a new government would soon be formed "with a clear European agenda."
The polls came three months after ethnic Albanian-majority Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, leading to the fall of the year-old government of nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica in a row over EU ties.
Some 40 countries led by the United States, Australia, Canada, Japan and most EU nations have recognised Kosovo, fuelling anti-Western anger, protests and violence in Serbia.
CeSID said 61 percent of the 6.7 million electorate turned out for the vote, whose official results must be given by Thursday.
Under the constitution, the parliament has to be formed within 30 days of the results being confirmed, while a government has be assembled by September, or else Serbia faces new elections.
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