BELGRADE Serbia will hold a presidential election on April 2 that is seen as a litmus test of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic's popularity, the parliamentary speaker said on Thursday.
The vote will pit Vucic, whose Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) is the largest in the ruling coalition, against the candidates of a fragmented opposition.
It will be a test of his economic reforms, which have been backed by the International Monetary Fund, as well as of efforts to bring the Balkan country of 7.3 million people closer to the European Union.
"I would like to use this opportunity to call all citizens to come out and vote and decide who will be the new president of Serbia," speaker Maja Gojkovic said after announcing the date.
Vucic said last month he would resign several days ahead of the presidential vote. It is unclear who would be new prime minister once Vucic steps down.
The coalition, which has a comfortable majority in the 250-seat parliament, will be able to secure parliamentary approval for its candidate without calling a new election.
While the president's role is largely ceremonial, if Vucic wins and effectively controls the parliamentary majority as party leader, he could wield huge sway over the government and a new prime minister who needs to implement restructuring reforms that could lead to job losses.
Faced with the need to cut borrowing costs and keep the deficit low, the country must sell, or make more efficient, big public companies, such as utility firms, and sell state-owned loss-making companies such as the RTB Bor copper mine.
Vucic urged Serbs to vote for a president from the same party as the government for the good of the country.
"If you have two captains each taking his side, that airplane is going straight down to abyss, and that would be a catastrophe for Serbia," Vucic told daily Kurir on Thursday.
The SNS board decided on last month to nominate Vucic instead of incumbent Tomislav Nikolic, a former party leader who wants closer ties with Serbia's powerful ally Russia.
The departure of Nikolic could mean quicker moves towards EU accession and a further improvement of Serbia's ties with NATO, despite its military neutrality.
(Reporting by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Alison Williams)