BELGRADE, Serbia - Serbs scattered their votes among 20 political parties in parliamentary elections yesterday, leaving no group with enough power to rule alone, according to partial returns in the Balkan nation.
The vote was the first since Serbia became independent last year with the end to its union with Montenegro, its last partner from the former Yugoslav federation. Soon after the vote, the United Nations was expected to propose a plan for the future of Serbia's breakaway Kosovo province.
Voters chose from parties ranging from ultranationalists and conservatives to pro-Western reformists and liberals. Parties needed a minimum 5 percent of the total vote to earn a place in the 250-member parliament.
Turnout was 62 percent, the state electoral commission said, indicating strong interest among the 6.6 million-member electorate.
Challenges facing the next parliament and government include Western demands for the arrest of war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic and the dispute over Kosovo, where a predominantly ethnic Albanian population seeks independence over the strong opposition of most Serbs.
According to CeSID, an independent Serbian polling group, the nationalist Serbian Radical Party, loyal to the late leader Slobodan Milosevic, led with 28.7 percent of the vote. But that was not enough for the party to govern alone.
The polling group, citing its own final vote count, said the Western-backed Democratic Party of President Boris Tadic was second with 22.9 percent, and the center-right Popular Coalition, led by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, had 16.7 percent.
The state electoral commission released similar results, but with a smaller percentage of the vote counted.
If those results hold, Serbia's bickering pro-democratic parties could partner to form a governing coalition if they agree on a prime minister. Kostunica has insisted on retaining the post, while the Democrats want to have one of their own leaders in the office.
"The Serbian Radical Party is the winner . . . but we will not have the opportunity to form the government," party leader Tomislav Nikolic said.
Kostunica was noncommittal about whether he would step down and allow a Democrat to take his place.
"The question who is going with whom is inappropriate at this moment," Kostunica said. "The president will have to find a man who will be able to get a majority" in the parliament.
The election came a day before talks among European Union foreign ministers in Brussels, Belgium, with Kosovo at the top of the agenda. The 27-nation bloc will look closely at the election results, hoping pro-Western parties will have enough strength to push ahead with democratic and economic reforms.