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April 02, 2017

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbs voted Sunday in a presidential election that was a test of their powerful leader’s authoritarian rule amid growing Russian influence in the Balkan region. Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, a former ultranationalist now a declared pro-European Union politician, is slated to win the presidency by a high margin against 10 opposition candidates, including a parody candidate who is mocking the country’s political establishment.

Vucic’s political clout could face a blow, however, if he does not sweep his opponents in the first round of voting. Vucic needs to win by more than 50 percent of the vote Sunday to avoid a runoff election on April 16 that would put him in a much trickier position against a single opposition candidate.

Vucic’s main challengers in the vote include human-rights lawyer and former Ombudsman Sasa Jankovic, former Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic and firebrand nationalist and Vucic’s former mentor Vojislav Seselj, who has been tried for war crimes.

The opposition has accused Vucic of muzzling the media and intimidating voters ahead of the election. Vucic denies such accusations, saying only he can bring stability to a region scarred by the wars of the 1990s, which Vucic had supported at the time.

“I really hope that with these elections, Serbia will carry on toward its further stability with full support of its government,” Vucic said as he cast his ballot. “I don’t know if I’ll win, but I truly hope that those who want to destabilize Serbia will not succeed.”

Jankovic, the independent candidate, said Sunday he’s happy with his campaign, which has galvanized the pro-democratic movement in Serbia that has been upset with the country’s persistent corruption and growing autocracy.

“In Serbia, a new, honest political movement has been created, and it’s the reason why we should be optimistic,” Jankovic said after he voted. The prime minister since 2014, Vucic expected to use his win to appoint a figurehead successor and transform the presidency from a ceremonial office into a more muscular role — and rule unchallenged like Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has endorsed him.

Contrary to his claims that he wants to lead Serbia into the EU, Vucic has been pushing for deeper ties with longtime ally Russia. Right before the vote, Vucic even visited Putin, who reportedly promised his signature on the delivery of fighter planes, battle tanks and armored vehicles to Serbia. The move triggered fears of an arms race in the western Balkans, which Russia considers its sphere of influence.

One of the biggest surprises of the election campaign has been Luka Maksimovic, a media student who is running as a parody politician, decked out in a white suit, oversized jewelry and a man-bun. Maksimovic’s parody character mocks corrupt Serbian politicians by promising to steal if he is elected.

His widely viewed videos on social media networks portray him doing push-ups, sucking a raw egg or riding a white horse surrounded by mock bodyguards. His supporters are mostly young voters alienated by Serbia’s decades-long crisis and economic decline.

“Let the best candidate win! And definitely, I’m the best,” Maksimovic said after he voted.

Associated Press writers Amer Cohadzic, Ivana Bzganovic and Jovana Gec contributed.

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