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Serbia's centre-right faces reform challenge after landslide

Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) leader Aleksandar Vucic smiles during a press conference at his party headquarters in Belgrade, on March 16, 2014
Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) leader Aleksandar Vucic smiles during a press conference at his party headquarters in Belgrade, on March 16, 2014

With a resounding election victory under its belt, Serbia's centre-right SNS party must now forge ahead with tough economic reforms as it plots a course into the EU, analysts said Monday.

With around half the ballots counted from Sunday's snap poll, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) has taken 48.3 percent of the vote, according to the electoral commission, which would translate to 158 members in the 250-seat parliament.

On these trends, the SNS is headed for the most emphatic election win since late strongman Slobodan Milosevic came to power after the fall of communism in 1990.

SNS leader Aleksandar Vucic, tipped to become prime minister, had already claimed victory late on Sunday.

Vucic "will be able to form the government without anybody else," the Blic newspaper wrote in an editorial.

"But with such a majority, Vucic has also inherited an absolute responsibility for everything that happens in Serbia. From regular payment of pensions to negotiations with the EU and Kosovo, all will be his responsibility," it said.

The 44-year old Vucic, an ultra-nationalist hawk turned pro-European, said the first task for the government would be to push ahead with economic reforms and "solve the unemployment problem".

"We are facing difficult reforms... I am convinced that Serbia will pursue its path towards the EU and its fight against corruption," Vucic told supporters at a victory rally in Belgrade on Sunday.

Vucic has built up huge support on the back of a tough anti-corruption drive and his efforts to mend relations with Brussels.

A woman walks past the Serbian parliament building in Belgrade, on March 16, 2014
A woman walks past the Serbian parliament building in Belgrade, on March 16, 2014

A compromise deal last year over the status of breakaway region Kosovo opened the door for Serbia to start accession talks with the EU, which it hopes to join in 2020.

- 'Political tsunami' -

The outgoing SNS-dominated coalition government had called the early election to build on its current wave of support and ensure a mandate for the tough economic reforms ahead.

Outgoing prime minister Ivica Dacic, whose Socialist Party has been in a coalition with the SNS and is currently in second place with 14 percent of the vote, said the result represented a "political tsunami" that had wiped the opposition off Serbia's political map.

Only seven parties, including three representing ethnic minorities, are expected to make it into parliament. The Democratic Party, which held power from 2008 to 2012, has so far taken just six percent of the vote.

With more than 20 percent of Serbia's 7.2 million people unemployed -- and those in work struggling to survive on an average monthly salary of 350 euros ($480) -- the economy has emerged as the top priority for lawmakers.

Top SNS official Nebojsa Stefanovic said Monday that the party "sincerely wants to do what we have promised and we will implement reforms," starting with the adoption of 21 reform bills by the end of July.

Other priorities include reforming antiquated labour laws and cutting down on bureaucracy, analysts said.

Serbia's eight billion euro ($11 billion) budget is struggling to cope with 1.7 million pensioners and a bloated public sector that employs more than 700,000 people.

The new government will also have to push through a stringent austerity package approved by parliament last year, including the privatisation of more than 170 state-owned companies, along with subsidy cuts and tax increases.

"With such a strong support in parliament, the SNS and Vucic as prime minister will have a free hand to do what they have promised to do," analyst Milan Culibrk said.

But Nemanja Nenadic of Transparency Serbia warned that "the monolithic government will have no excuses to delay reforms".

Others said that the landslide victory may be harmful for Serbia's political scene.

"It is not good for such a young democracy to have such a weak opposition. There should be differences of opinion in parliament," analyst Milan Nikolic said.

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