Serbia votes in snap polls amid economic gloom

BELGRADE (AFP) - Serbians voted in snap polls on Sunday, with the ruling centre-right SNS party tipped to cement its grip on power on promises of economic reforms that would help lead the Balkan country into the EU.

With ballooning public debt, a bloated public sector and record unemployment, the dire state of the economy has eclipsed the thorny issue of Kosovo as the key voter concern.

The outgoing SNS-dominated cabinet, led by Socialist Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, won support from Brussels to begin membership talks only after a historic accord with long-time foe Kosovo last year.

The Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and its leader Aleksandar Vucic - tipped to become the next premier - called early polls in order to win a new mandate to push ahead with economic reforms.

"I want Serbia to pursue a fierce battle against corruption, develop its economy, increase the number of jobs, and for this we need difficult and painful reforms," said Vucic, an ultra-nationalist hawk turned pro-European.

"It will not be easy at all. Thousands of other problems must also be solved," he said after casting his ballot.

Though the SNS won most votes in 2012 elections, the post of premier was given to its Socialist coalition partners.

The SNS's popularity is largely thanks to Vucic's high-profile anti-graft drive that led to the arrest of several tycoons and former ministers.

Long seen as a pariah for its role in the 1990s Balkan wars, Serbia - the largest country to emerge after the break-up of Yugoslavia - hopes to join the 28-member EU by 2020.

Kosovo, once the most sensitive issue in Serbia which still refuses to recognise its 2008 declaration of independence, has been overshadowed by the state of the economy in the country of 7.2 million.

A fifth of the workforce is unemployed and the average monthly salary is 350 euros (S$616).

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