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Sunday September 25th, 2022 4:00AM

Early projections point to victory for Serbia's president

By The Associated Press
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BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — President Aleksandar Vucic and his populist right-wing party appeared headed to victory in Sunday's national election, extending a decade-long authoritarian rule in the Balkan country, according to early pollsters’ projections.

The IPSOS and CESID pollsters, which have proven reliable in previous Serbian ballots, predicted Vucic would end up with nearly 60% of the votes. If confirmed in the official tally, Vucic would win outright a second five-year term as president and a runoff vote would not be needed.

The pollsters projected that Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party would win the most votes in the parliamentary ballot, with around 43%, followed by the United for Victory of Serbia opposition group with around 13%.

Serbia’s state election authorities said they would not make any official announcements on the vote count before Monday.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

Opposition claims of widespread irregularities marked Serbia's national election on Sunday in which President Aleksandar Vucic and his ruling populists hope to extend their 10-year grip on power in the Balkan state.

Some 6.5 million voters were eligible to choose the country's president and a new parliament, and elections were being held as well for local authorities in the capital, Belgrade, and in over a dozen other towns and municipalities. Turnout was reported about 55% an hour before polls closed, higher than in most Serbian elections.

Opinion surveys ahead of the vote predicted that Vucic will win another five-year term and that his right-wing Serbian Progressive Party will yet again dominate the 250-member assembly. But opposition groups stood a chance of winning in Belgrade, analysts say, which would deal a serious blow to Vucic's increasingly autocratic rule.

Opposition groups said Sunday that multiple irregularities were spotted during the vote. Opposition election controllers reported widespread ghost voting — voting under the names of people who are dead or don't exist — as well ruling party activists offering money in exchange for votes.

One opposition leader was attacked outside Vucic's party offices in a Belgrade suburb, suffering facial injuries. A ruling party official was reportedly attacked in the central town of Nis.

Vucic, a former ultranationalist who has boasted of his close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has sought to portray himself as a guarantor of stability amid the turmoil raging in Europe due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Speaking after voting in Belgrade, Vucic said he expected Serbia to continue on the path of “stability, tranquility and peace.”

"I believe in a significant and convincing victory and I believe everyone will get what they deserve,” he said.

In a country that went through a series of wars in the 1990s and a NATO bombing in 1999, fears of a conflict spilling over have played into Vucic's hands. Although Serbia is formally seeking entry into the 27-nation European Union, Vucic has fostered close ties with Russia and China, counting on the Serbs' resentment of the West over the 1999 NATO air war.

Serbia has supported a U.N. resolution that condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but Belgrade has not joined Western sanctions against Moscow, a historic Slavic ally.

Beleaguered opposition groups have also mostly refrained from publicly advocating a tougher line on Moscow. Russia has supported Serbia's claim on Kosovo, a former province that declared Western-backed independence in 2008.

After boycotting Serbia's previous vote in 2020, the main opposition parties said Sunday's vote was also far from free and fair because of Vucic's domination over the mainstream media and the state institutions.

Vucic’s main opponent in the presidential election comes from a centrist-conservative coalition, United for Victory of Serbia, which comprises the main opposition parties. Gen. Zdravko Ponos, a Western-educated former army chief of staff, is hoping to push Vucic into a second round in the presidential ballot.

“These elections are going to (bring) serious change in Serbia,” Ponos said after casting his ballot. “I hope citizens of Serbia are going to take (a) chance today.”

Ahead of the vote, reports emerged of ballots being sent to addresses for people who don't live there, prompting opposition warnings of potential fraud. But Serbia's ruling populists have denied manipulating ballots or pressuring voters.

Their standing in the capital has been lower than the rest of the country due partly to a number of corruption-plagued construction projects that have devastated Belgrade's urban core.

A green-left coalition, Moramo, or We Must, is running in the election for the first time, campaigning on the discontent in Belgrade and on anger over Serbia's numerous environmental problems. The group has drawn thousands to protests against lithium mining in Serbia and to demand cleaner air, rivers and land.

Since his party came to power in 2012, Vucic has served as defense minister, prime minister and president.

On the eve of the election, some voters in Belgrade said they would like to see a change, at least in the capital. Others were skeptical that was possible.

”Honestly, I think the opposition stands no chance," said Srdjan Kovacevic, a resident of Belgrade.

Predrag Rebic said he too expects Serbia's central government and president to remain the same.

"The (Belgrade) mayor will change, that’s what I expect,” he said.

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