BELGRADE, Serbia - Serbian voters rebuffed nationalist parties in parliamentary elections Sunday, indicating they wanted to move closer to Europe despite the recognition of Kosovo's independence by many western nations.
But despite their unexpectedly strong showing, pro-Western parties may not have enough support to form a governing coalition, and the country's immediate future may be in the hands of the Socialist party of the late nationalist leader, Slobodan Milosevic.
Early projections from an independent monitoring group, the Center for Free Elections and Democracy (CESID), indicated that the pro-western Democratic Party of President Boris Tadic and its smaller allies won a just under 40 percent of the vote, compared to less than 30 percent for the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party.
"The citizens of Serbia have clearly and unequivocally confirmed their commitment to the European course," said a smiling Tadic as he declared victory Sunday evening after his party's surprisingly strong showing. Opinion polls, and local betting halls, had predicted a win for the Radical Party, whose leader is facing war crimes charges in The Hague.
Sunday's poll was widely seen as a referendum on Serbia's future and whether it would turn towards Europe or Russia. Pro-western parties campaigned under the slogan "For a European Serbia", promising to bring the country into the European Union and to woo foreign investment and capital.
"We are in Europe, we are part of Europe," said Mirko Ciric, has he emerged from a polling station with his pregnant wife after voting for a pro-Western party. "I want a better life for my child, a life without worry."
Nationalist parties like the Radicals and the Democratic Party of Serbia, led by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, said Serbia should only join Europe as a whole nation, including Kosovo, which declared independence on February 17. Many Serbs consider Kosovo the Serb spiritual heartland.
Democratic Party supporters celebrated in the streets of Belgrade Sunday night with flags and fireworks. But although both nationalist parties lost significant support, political stability in this nation, still haunted by the Balkan wars of the 1990sm may remain elusive.
No single party won enough seats to control parliament outright, and in the deeply divided world of Serbian politics, building a coalition will be difficult.
The rump of Milosevic's Socialists, who were projected to win around 8 percent of the vote, could be the kingmakers. The party refused to say before the elections whether they would join the pro-western or nationalist block.
But on Sunday night the party's leader, Ivica Dacic, said the Socialists would speak first with the nationalist bloc. And Tomislav Nikolic, the Radical Party's de facto leader on the ground, warned Tadic against declaring victory prematurely. He said there would be a nationalist coalition, with the support of the Socialists, or that no coalition would be possible. A government must be formed within a 120 days or new elections held.
In a show of defiance to Kosovo's independence, Serbs in Kosovo also voted in Sunday's elections. Along with Serbs who left Kosovo, who voted at special polling stations for the displaced, they elected representatives to Serbia's parliament as well as parallel local officials for the breakaway region.
But the United Nations called the vote illegal and said it would not recognize the results in Kosovo.
Itano is a McClatchy special correspondent