BELGRADE, Serbia — Serbia's president on Tuesday called parliamentary elections for May 6, when his ruling democrats will face a strong challenge from nationalists even as Serbia became a candidate for European Union membership.
Boris Tadic signed a decree setting the key vote for the 250-seat national assembly.
Tadic's ruling pro-EU coalition is blamed by nationalists for deep economic problems, rising unemployment and corruption. Serbia formally became an EU membership candidate this month.
After the signing, Tadic urged the Serbian citizens to vote in large numbers and said the future government should be formed immediately after the election so that it would tackle Serbia's many problems.
"The future government will have to make tough and complex decisions to secure a better future for the citizens," he said.
Tadic chose the EU path, even when his pro-Western policies suffered a major setback in Serbia with the 2008 declaration of independence by former province of Kosovo, which was supported by the U.S. and majority of EU countries.
Tadic is blamed by ultranationalists for selling off Kosovo — considered the cradle of Serbian statehood and religion — at the expense of uncertain and distant EU membership.
Tadic's Democratic Party is trailing nationalist Serbian Progressive Party of opposition leader Tomislav Nikolic by a few percentage points in all pre-election polls. But Tadic is likely to attract more support from smaller parties to get a majority in Parliament to form the next coalition government.
Nikolic's populists have capitalized on widespread discontent with falling living standards amid the global economic crisis.
"The most important thing for the Serbian Progressive Party in the next election will be economy, development of Serbia, investments and employment, something the current government was unable to solve," said the deputy leader of the Progressives, Aleksandar Vucic.
In recent years, Nikolic has succeeded in attracting disenchanted Serbs by railing against corruption and social injustice, while distancing himself from the founder of the Serbian Radicals, Vojislav Seselj, who is standing a war crimes trial at a U.N. war crimes tribunal in the Netherlands.
In the process of his political transformation, Nikolic has claimed to have shifted from staunchly anti-Western, to pro-EU.
Nikolic and his party appear to be Kremlin's choice for Serbia's new leaders. He made several recent trips to Moscow for consultations with top Russian officials.
Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this report.