Tomislav Nikolic, leader of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), was named the victor of Sunday's presidential elections in Serbia, beating incumbent President Boris Tadic of the Democratic Party (DS).
Nikolic eked out a victory with 49.5 percent of the vote, compared to Tadic's 47.3 percent, according to the Associated Press. This runoff vote followed a primary election on May 6, during which Tadic had won a plurality.
In Parliamentary elections, also on May 6, SNS had gained 73 seats in the 250-seat assembly, while Tadic's DS came in at a close second with 68 seats. Third place went to the Socialist Party (SPS), which made a fair showing with 44 seats.
Tadic, who had resigned in April to force the earlier vote, conceded defeat on Monday and congratulated Nikolic on a fair and well-earned victory.
During the campaign, Tadic painted Nikolic as a candidate whose political history was cause for alarm. Until 2008, Nikolic led the super-nationalist Serbian Radical Party. Before that, he was allied to the much-reviled former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic.
Serbia became a pariah state under the leadership of Milosevic, whose consolidation of power and perpetration of war crimes in the name of Serbian nationalism led to one of the bloodiest conflicts in Europe since World War II.
During his presidency, Milosevic's aggression against neighboring states was met with NATO-led military intervention as well as international sanctions, devastating the Serbian economy. Public protests in 2000 led to his resignation and subsequent imprisonment. He was tried for war crimes by an international tribunal, but died in 2006 before a verdict could be reached.
Nikolic has made an effort to distance himself from the legacy of Milosevic by shedding his own extreme-nationalist associations over the last few years. Though he led the Serbian Radical Party until 2008, he left it shortly after losing that year's presidential election to Tadic. He then formed the Serbian Progressive Party, a center-right group that has done well to exploit the public's discontent against Tadic's Democratic Party.
Nikolic ran a populist campaign decrying Serbia's economic problems, which include a high unemployment rate, a weak currency and an overwhelming trade deficit. He accused his opponent of corruption and cronyism. Tadic, meanwhile, campaigned on a promise to keep working for Serbia's admittance into the European Union. In the end, it was Nikolic's promise of economic reforms, including higher taxes for Serbia's rich, that struck a chord with a slim majority of voters.
Like Tadic, Nikolic also pledges to keep Serbia on track to join the EU, though this marks a departure for a man who has historically spoken more favorably of Russia than of Europe.
Serbia will not walk away from its path to the EU, said Nikolic on Sunday, according to the New York Times. These elections were not about whether Serbia will go to EU, they were about solving problems that the Democratic Party has created in Serbia.
But Nikolic's Europe-friendly statements are tempered by other remarks he has made signifying a wish to maintain an alliance with Russia, and by his assertion that EU membership will not motivate him to recognize the independence of neighboring Kosovo, which broke away from Serbia in 2008.
EU officials met news of the Nikolic's victory with a cautiously optimistic statement, released by the European Commission on Monday.
In these elections the Serbian people have given a very clear signal of support to the continued European orientation of government policy, said the statement, noting that Serbia has recently been granted status as an official candidate for EU membership.
We strongly encourage President Nikolic to pursue this direction with particular determination in order to achieve the additional progress that would allow the European Commission to recommend the opening of accession negotiations and the European Council to take this decision.
Some analysts worry that Nikolic will abandon his EU goals and revert to his radical Serbian nationalist roots, in which case he will be forced to contend with a leftist parliament.
The Serbian Radical Party that Nikolic abandoned four years ago won no seats in the May 6 parliamentary elections.
Now, a parliamentary alliance between the Democratic Party and the Socialists is likely, which would nullify the Serbian Progressive Party's plurality and force contending parties to govern together. Such an arrangement could lead to either compromise or gridlock as Nikolic begins his five-year term with ambitious promises to revive the struggling economy, beat out governmental corruption, and walk the fine diplomatic line between East and West.