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Ruling populists look set to win Serbia vote amid pandemic

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BELGRADE, Serbia

Serbia’s ruling populists are set to tighten their hold on power in a Sunday parliamentary election held amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus in the Balkan country and a partial boycott by the opposition.

Nearly 6.6 million voters are eligible to cast ballots for the 250-member parliament and local authorities. The election — initially planned for April but postponed because of the pandemic — comes as Serbia still reports dozens of new cases daily after completely relaxing its strict lockdown rules.

President Aleksandar Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party appears set for a landslide victory, facing little challenge from the divided opposition.

Opponents say this is because Vucic has dominated the campaign on the mainstream media which he controls, clamping down on his critics. He has denied this.

Citing lack of free and fair conditions and danger to public health, several main opposition groups are boycotting the vote.

But a number of smaller parties have decided to run, saying the boycott would only sideline an already marginalized opposition.

Health authorities have provided face masks, gloves and sanitizers at the polling stations. Voters are advised to use them, but they’re not mandatory.

A former extreme nationalist, Vucic briefly served as information minister in the government of late strongman Slobodan Milosevic during the 1990s wars in the Balkans. While he now says he seeks European Union entry for Serbia, critics warn democratic freedoms have eroded since his Progressives came to power in 2012.

The president has called on his supporters to vote in large numbers in order to get a strong mandate for internationally mediated peace negotiations on the future of Serbia’s breakaway former province of Kosovo.

A U.S.-brokered Kosovo-Serbia summit is to he held in Washington on June 27, while EU officials have announced plans to restart Brussels-mediated negotiations.

Serbia has refused to recognize Western-backed independence of Kosovo but has relied on Russia and China for the support in the dispute.

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