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Europe at the heart of Serb vote

Polls closed in Serbia's crucial parliamentary election, as voters embittered by economic hardship and the secession of Kosovo were called on to choose between a defiant stand or a pro-European future without the breakaway province.

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Polls closed in Serbia on Sunday evening and voters awaited the outcome of a parliamentary election to see if the lure of European Union membership had outweighed their anger over the EU-backed secession of Kosovo.

Turnout during the day was lower than expected but election officials forecast a last-minute rush to vote by the undecided.

The country is divided and the two front-runners, the nationalist Radical Party and the pro-Western Democratic Party, will have to woo smaller parties to form a coalition. The West has made clear it hopes the Democrats will win.

"This election is a referendum on whether we let Kosovo go or fight for it, this is the only reason I came to vote," said a 50-year-old Belgrade man who declined to give his name.

"I feel a lot of disappointment over the broken promises,"  said another voter, Djordje Petrovic, who backed the Democrats in the past but this time opted for a smaller, more liberal party.

The Radicals say that in the eight years since the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, acquiescence to the West and harsh market reforms have brought Serbs only humiliation and poverty.

They want to put EU membership on ice and push Serbia's claim to Kosovo. The Albanian majority in the former province declared independence with EU support in February. "We'll make Serbia a country of proud people again, defend our borders," Radical leader Tomislav Nikolic said after voting, "we'll cooperate with everyone, openly with friends but cautiously with those who show they are not our friends".

The Democrats say EU accession is the only way to attract investors and raise living standards that suffered in the 1990s, when Serbia was isolated for its role in the Yugoslav wars.

They have tried to combine firm opposition to Kosovo's secession with offering a hand of friendship to the Western countries that recognised it.

"This vote has clear and great consequences," said the Democrats' leader, President Boris Tadic. "I am convinced Serbs will vote for life, prosperity, faster development."




EU ANXIETY


Turnout was 54.2 percent by 1700 GMT.

Neither of the two main parties is likely to win outright, making outgoing Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica of the nationalist Democratic Party of Serbia the probable kingmaker.

He has moved closer to the Radicals' position over Kosovo and is unlikely to renew his alliance with Tadic's Democrats, whom he accuses of selling out to the EU.

After voting on Sunday, Kostunica said: "It's very important that a government is formed quickly after the election so we can continue the policy of preserving the state's integrity."

The West and other Balkan states are worried about a ripple effect from a hardline Nikolic-Kostunica coalition.

Nationalist moves to partition Kosovo and annex its Serb minority could harden Albanian separatist feeling in southern Serbia and Macedonia, and encourage Serb separatists in Bosnia.

The EU has made its preference clear by offering Serbs a visa facilitation deal and a pre-membership pact that are implicitly conditioned on a Democrat win.

It has said that with nationalists in power, Serbia's progress to membership would face long delays, but Brussels would not close the door completely.

Some 6.7 million people are registered to vote, including  Kosovo's defiant ethnic Serbs. Polls closed at 8 p.m. (1800
GMT).

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