BELGRADE, May 13, 2008 -- Serbian President Boris Tadic and his pro-Western Democratic Party have claimed victory in the country's parliamentary elections with a lead of almost 10 points over their ultra-nationalist rivals.
Moments after preliminary results were announced, downtown Belgrade was filled with honking car horns and happy supporters waving Serbian and party flags. Singing and dancing party followers celebrated until dawn.
"This is a great day for Serbia," said Tadic as fireworks lit up the skies over the capital. "Serbia will be in the European Union. We have promised that and we will fulfill that."
For many there was a sense of relief, even disbelief at the results: that this troubled country -- for so long an international pariah -- would ever see such a decisive victory for the Democratic Party, which claimed 39 percent of the vote and 103 seats in the 250-seat Parliament.
Pre-election polls had predicted victory for the ultranationalist Radical Party, who campaigned to redirect Serbia from Europe toward alliances with Russia and China.
Some Belgrade commentators had even predicted a dangerous turn from a relatively open society to a more authoritarian and isolationist model.
The biggest loser in the voting was the DSS party of outgoing Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who ran a fiery campaign focused almost entirely on fighting the self-declared independence of Kosovo. The DSS list won only 30 seats in Parliament.
Voters apparently punished the DSS for Kostunica's highly charged language, calling pro-Europeans "traitors of the fatherland" for promoting integration into the European Union instead of reclaiming control of Kosovo.
But the Democrats' election night victory could still be overturned as negotiations to form a coalition government gather pace.
Tadic's supporters failed to secure a majority and the Radicals, his chief opponents, say they will try to put together a ruling coalition. That could happen if the hard-line Radicals, who took 28 percent of votes and 77 seats in Parliament, strike a deal with Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (30 seats) and the revived Socialist Party of Serbia (25 seats).
Ironically, the Socialists, once led by the deceased accused war criminal President Slobodan Milosevic, with around 8 percent of votes, will be the king makers. Their decision on which coalition to join, the Democrats or the Radicals, could shape Serbia's short-term future.
This election was regarded as a major test of Serbian public opinion, as it followed so closely Kosovo's recent declaration of independence.
The nationalist parties, especially the Radicals and the DSS, proposed closer ties with Russia and China as a punitive response to European support for Kosovo independence.
Tadic, however, has argued that Serbia should continue to press for EU membership, while refusing to recognize the secession of Kosovo.
On April 29, Serbian officials signed in Brussels the Stabilization and Association Agreement, the first formal step toward EU membership.
The agreement brought with it the promise of easier access to visas for Serbs wishing to travel within the European Union. Even more valuable, at least in terms of job creation, the automaker Fiat announced that it would take over the old Zastava car factory and inject 700 million euros of investment. All the above are believed to have helped persuade voters to back the Democrats' pro-European list.
"Make no mistake, this vote is a huge milestone for the psychology of Serbia," said Bozidar Djelic, deputy prime minister in the outgoing Serbian government and an ally of Tadic.
"It is a rejection of uncivil nationalism."