World Bulletin / News Desk
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, an ultra-nationalist turned pro-European liberal, will be a candidate in the spring presidential elections, his party said Tuesday.
The leadership of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) decided "unanimously" to have Vucic as a candidate, meaning President Tomislav Nikolic, also in the SNS, will not seek another five-year term.
The 46-year old premier is widely seen as a favourite in the polls, with some analysts forecasting he could clinch the race after just the first round of voting.
Although the Serbian presidency is largely a ceremonial position, Vucic would probably remain one of the country's most powerful politicians if he won.
Since 2012, Vucic has won backing from the EU by pursuing improved relations with Kosovo, its former territory -- a key requirement for each country's EU membership bids.
He has also garnered support for the care shown to the waves of refugees travelling through Serbia over the past two years.
His government opened membership talks with the European Union in 2014, and also pledged to carry out economic reforms called for by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
But his critics say he is an authoritarian leader who has failed to live up to his reformist and graft-busting promises, and has centralised decision-making while curtailing media freedoms.
Vucic's rivals in the presidential race are expected to include Vojislav Seselj, leader of the hardline Serbian Radical Party, who last year was acquitted of war crime charges by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
Vucic's candidacy is supported by the junior party in the governing coalition, Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), the party of ex-strongman Slobodan Milosevic, currently led by Deputy Prime Minister Ivica Dacic.
In 1990s Vucic was a top official in Seselj's radical party, and information minister in the regime of Slobodan Milosevic during the 1998-1999 Kosovo war and NATO bombing campaign against Serbia.
But Nikolic and Vucic broke ranks with Seselj in 2008 to form the SNS, advocating improved relations with the West and Serbia's membership in the European Union.
But Vucic has also kept friendly relations with Serbia's traditional ally Russia.
He came back to power in 2012, first as a deputy prime minister and two years later as the premier, winning widespread support with a populist platform.
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