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BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia's parliament speaker has set April 2 as the date for the country's presidential election, in which the country's populist leader will face several opposition candidates who have alleged major irregularities in the pre-vote process.
The date announced Thursday by Speaker Maja Gojkovic means that the second round of the presidential ballot will be held on Easter Sunday, April 16, if no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round.
Serbia's populist Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic — a former ultranationalist now self-declared pro-EU reformer — is considered a clear favorite to win the presidency, possibly even in the first round, pre-election polls suggest.
He will face several opposition candidates, including pro-Western liberal Sasa Jankovic; former Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, who is supported by conservative and pro-Russian groups; and ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj who has been cleared of war crimes by a U.N. court but still faces an appeals process.
Jankovic is a former human rights defender and Jeremic was president of the U.N. General Assembly in 2012-13 and a losing candidate to become U.N. chief in 2015.
The opposition said the election could not be free and fair because Vucic controls most of the mainstream media and has chosen an election date that allows a very short campaign.
Gojkovic, the parliament speaker, has suspended the assembly's work until the end of the vote, depriving the opposition of one of its rare venues for criticizing Vucic's politics.
Jeremic said Thursday that the suspension of the parliament represents a "coup d'etat" and asked Vucic to resign from his prime minister's post before he starts his campaign.
"If Vucic does not respond to our demands, we (the opposition) will have to take steps to protect the constitutional order of the country," Jeremic said, hinting that the opposition could call for street protests by its supporters.
At a rally in southern Serbia, Vucic responded that his answer "to those who threaten violence is that I'm not afraid."
Gojkovic, a close party ally of Vucic, accused the opposition of wanting to create an atmosphere of "chaos" once they face the results of the election.
Although the presidential post is largely ceremonial, the outcome of the vote could determine whether Serbia continues on its European Union membership path or will move toward Russia, its traditional ally.
Serbia's current pro-Russian president and Vucic's ally, Tomislav Nikolic, decided not to run after a five-year-term.
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