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 Vucic, 47, winning in the first round with more than 50 percent 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 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 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 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, Vucic is a cool head and a firm hand in a troubled region.
"I voted for stability, we've had enough wars," said Bozica Ivanovic, a 65-year-old pensioner who voted for Vucic. "We need more jobs for younger people and if we can get higher pensions and salaries, even better."
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, Vucic was Serbia's feared information minister behind draconian legislation designed to muzzle criticism of the government during the 1998-99 Kosovo war.
"We want above all to give back dignity to Serbian citizens and meaning to state institutions," Sasa Jankovic, Serbia's former human rights ombudsman who was polling a distant second or third before Sunday's vote, said after casting his ballot.
Turnout until 10 a.m was 10.56 percent compared to 11.04 percent in 2012, state election commission said.
"PROXY" PRIME MINISTER
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 greedy cheats. Despite economic growth and greater fiscal stability, Serbia remains mired in poverty and corruption.
"I voted for Beli," said 30-year-old Dejan Markovic, an unemployed metal worker. "The so-called opposition candidates have betrayed us in the past and Vucic is lying to us all now, so Beli is the only way to mock all this hypocrisy."
Pollsters said a high turnout among Serbia's 6.7 million eligible voters may force a run-off on April 16, Easter weekend, if no single candidate wins a majority in the first round.
"I am hoping these elections will facilitate stability and the continuation of economic reforms," Vucic said after voting.
As president, Vucic would have few formal powers, among them the right to send legislation back to parliament for reconsideration.
But he is widely expected to appoint a loyal ally as prime minister and try to keep a tight rein on policy, as former President Boris Tadic, then of the Democratic Party, did between 2004 and 2012.
Some analysts said that could yet prove difficult.
"Vucic will now be distanced from everyday policy-making and executive affairs and will have to rely on a proxy," Eurasia Group wrote in on March 30. "This will likely generate some tensions in the chain of command."
(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Tom Heneghan)