Serbia votes in early parliamentary election

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Serbian Progressive Party leader Aleksandar Vucic speaks to media after voted at a polling station in Belgrade, Serbia, Sunday, March 16, 2014. Serbs are voting in an early parliamentary election that is expected to tighten the grip on power of the ruling populists, who have become popular by promising to fight crime and corruption in the troubled Balkan nation seeking EU entry. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

Serbian Progressive Party leader Aleksandar Vucic speaks to media after voted at a polling station in Belgrade, Serbia, Sunday, March 16, 2014. Serbs are voting in an early parliamentary election that is expected to tighten the grip on power of the ruling populists, who have become popular by promising to fight crime and corruption in the troubled Balkan nation seeking EU entry. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Belgrade, Serbia, Sunday, March 16, 2014. Serbs are voting in an early parliamentary election that is expected to tighten the grip on power of the ruling populists, who have become popular by promising to fight crime and corruption in the troubled Balkan nation seeking EU entry. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

Serbian Progressive Party leader Aleksandar Vucic, center speaks to media after voted at a polling station in Belgrade, Serbia, Sunday, March 16, 2014. Serbs are voting in an early parliamentary election that is expected to tighten the grip on power of the ruling populists, who have become popular by promising to fight crime and corruption in the troubled Balkan nation seeking EU entry. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

Serbian Progressive Party leader Aleksandar Vucic leaves a polling station with his daughter Milica after voting for the parliamentary elections in Belgrade, Serbia, Sunday, March 16, 2014. Serbs are voting in an early parliamentary election that is expected to tighten the grip on power of the ruling populists, who have become popular by promising to fight crime and corruption in the troubled Balkan nation seeking EU entry. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

A woman casts her ballot for the parliamentary elections at a polling station in Belgrade, Serbia, Sunday, March 16, 2014. Polls have opened at the parliamentary elections in Serbia on Sunday, with the ruling Serbian Progressive Party seen as a clear favorite to win the majority of votes. (AP Photo/Marko Drobnjakovic)

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BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbs voted in an election on Sunday that could give a clear parliamentary majority to a center-right party that has vowed to overhaul the nation’s struggling economy and push for membership in the European Union.

If the ruling Progressive Party wins the most seats in Serbia’s 250-member parliament, as polls predicted, it is expected to choose Aleksandar Vucic — a former hardline, pro-Russian nationalist who has become a pro-EU advocate — as prime minister.

He has pledged to vigorously fight against corruption and crime, and revive the economy in the troubled Balkan nation of about 7 million people.

The polls said the Socialists, whose leader Ivica Dacic is the prime minister in the outgoing coalition government, would finish second in the election.

Turnout was about 28 percent midway through the vote Sunday, slightly less than during the 2012 parliamentary election that brought the Progressives, former allies of late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, back to power in Serbia.

The vote comes as Serbia, a longtime international pariah for fomenting wars in the Balkans in the 1990s, is officially seeking entry into the EU, amid deep economic problems and simmering social discontent because of plunging living standards.

Serbia this year opened membership talks with the EU after signing a deal normalizing ties with Kosovo, a former province which split in 2008, but whose independence Serbia’s refuses to recognize.

Vucic says he needs a strong mandate to carry out painful reforms needed to help Serbia’s economy, which has been ravaged by mismanagement, wars and international sanctions.

“I expect that after the election the fight for jobs and the fight against the corruption will become basic issues that the new government will deal with,” Vucic said after casting his ballot Sunday.

The opposition has accused him of seeking to introduce a Russian-type, hardline leadership in Serbia by assuming dominant powers in the state, which is deeply split between pro-Russian and pro-Western sentiment.

Unemployment in Serbia officially stands at about 20 percent, but experts say it is much higher. Serbia has been told by international creditors that to move forward it must cut jobs in the public sector and privatize state-owned, loss-making companies.

As Ninoslav Krstic of Belgrade turned up at a polling station to vote Sunday, he said: “I hope we will live much better and that there will be more jobs.”

The main pro-Western opposition party, the center-left Democratic Party, was expected to win about 13 percent of the votes. The party split up ahead of the election after former President Boris Tadic formed his own New Democratic Party.

Also running are the Liberal Democrats and hardline pro-Russian nationalists who oppose the EU bid.

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AP correspondent Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this report.

Associated Press

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