Serbian PM Aleksandar Vucic the runaway favourite to become president

Serbians vote for a new president with conservative Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic the runaway favourite with polls predicting he will win more than 50 per cent of the vote, trailed in the low teens by a former rights advocate.

Current Serbian prime minister and presidential candidate Aleksandar Vucic waits at a polling station with his daughter Milica, in Belgrade, Serbia, Sunday, April 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
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BELGRADE // Serbians voted for a new president on Sunday with conservative Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic the runaway favourite despite opposition warnings about the extent of his domination over the Balkan country.

Most polls see Mr Vucic, 47, winning in the first round with more than 50 per cent of the vote, trailed in the low teens by a former rights advocate and a white-suited student whose satirical portrayal of a sleazy political fraudster has struck a chord with some disillusioned voters.

The role of president is largely ceremonial, but Mr Vucic is expected to retain real power through his control of Serbia’s ruling Progressive Party.

As such, the election is unlikely to alter the country’s delicate balancing act between the European Union, which Mr Vucic wants Serbia to join, and Russia, with which Serbs share their Orthodox Christian faith and Slavic heritage.

During the campaign, the studio backdrop of one popular television talkshow on which Mr Vucic was a guest featured a photograph of him flanked by pictures of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

To his supporters, Mr Vucic is a cool head and a firm hand in a troubled region.

“There were no real proposals or ideas in the programmes of the other candidates, so I voted for the only one who actually produced something and that was Vucic,” said 28-year-old Nebojsa Tomic, an unemployed pharmacist, shortly after polls opened.

Mr 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, Mr Vucic was Serbia’s feared information minister behind draconian legislation designed to muzzle criticism of the government during the 1998-99 Kosovo war.

“The state of the media reflects the way Aleksandar Vucic rules Serbia - using pressure, abuse and often false statements,” Sasa Jankovic, Serbia’s former human rights ombudsman who was polling a distant second or third before Sunday’s vote, told N1 television.

Mr Jankovic and a host of opposition candidates risk being embarrassed by 25-year-old communications student Luka Maksimovic, 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 out to line their own pockets at the expense of the downtrodden masses. Despite economic growth and greater fiscal stability, Serbia remains mired in poverty and corruption.

Pollsters said a high turnout among Serbia’s 6.7 million eligible voters may yet force a run-off on April 16, Easter weekend.