Serbian pro-Western President Boris Tadic said Wednesday he is resigning, paving the way for an early presidential election where he will face a strong challenge from a nationalist candidate.
Serbia's parliament speaker is expected to call the vote for May 6, the same day when parliamentary and local elections are already scheduled.
In the presidential vote, Tadic will be challenged by nationalist candidate Tomislav Nikolic who has received tacit support from Russia.
Tadic, who has worked hard to bring Serbia closer to the European Union, said the challenge will be tough, and called on voters to choose which way they want the country to go.
"I'm offering a road of European integration and preserving the country's integrity," Tadic said. "I will run in that election with optimism because of the positive trends in our country."
Tadic's presidential term would have expired early next year. But he decided for an early vote apparently to boost the chances of his Democratic Party, which has been slipping in recent pre-election polls against Nikolic's populist Serbian Progressive Party.
Nikolic expressed confidence he will beat Tadic in the May vote. If no candidate receives 50 percent of the votes cast in the first round, the top two contenders will go into the second round.
"I hope the election campaign will be fair," Nikolic, who has narrowly lost against Tadic in two previous presidential elections, said Wednesday.
Tadic's ruling democrats are blamed for the country's deep economic and social problems. The nationalists also claim Tadic is willing to sell off Serbia's cherished former province of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008, at the expense of distant and uncertain EU membership.
"I will never recognize Kosovo," Tadic said while announcing his resignation.
In recent years, Nikolic has succeeded in attracting disenchanted Serbs by railing against corruption and social injustice. In the process of his political transformation, Nikolic has claimed to have shifted from staunchly anti-Western, to pro-European Union.
There is growing concern among Serbian liberals that the victory of Nikolic, who was deputy prime minister in coalition government with late President Slobodan Milosevic in the late 1990s and backed his wars in the Balkans, could plunge Serbia back into confrontation with the West. (nvn)texas rangers|fourth of july|prometheus|goog|hanley ramirez