Serbian Democrats See Narrow Win

BELGRADE -- Serbia's pro-European alliance sought a coalition deal with smaller parties on Monday to stave off a challenge from nationalist runners-up who say they too can form a government after Sunday's parliamentary election.

The state election commission said that with around 98 percent of votes counted, the Democratic Party had 38.75 percent and the nationalist Radical Party 29.2 percent.

The election was fought on whether Serbs should swallow their anger over European Union support for the independence of Kosovo, the Serb province which seceded in February, or turn their backs on the bid for European Union membership.

The Democrats' leader, President Boris Tadic, said: "Serbs have undoubtedly confirmed a clear European path.

"This is a great victory, but it's not over yet," and the Democrats now had to "form a government as soon as possible."

The Radicals' leader, Tomislav Nikolic, said the Democrats had jumped the gun and there were "clear possibilities of a coalition which does not include the Democratic Party."

Nikolic said he would talk to the two parties that share the Radicals' ideology, the Democratic Party of Serbia led by outgoing nationalist premier Vojislav Kostunica and the Socialists of the late autocrat Slobodan Milosevic.

Either these three would form a coalition, he predicted, or "Serbia won't have a government and we'll go to new elections."

The European Union put the best possible gloss on the result, hailing it as "a clear victory to the pro-EU parties" and ignoring the nationalist challenge.

"We look forward to work closely with a new government formed on this mandate," said a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

The EU had made its preference clear before the vote, offering Belgrade a pre-membership pact and a visa facilitation deal that are implicitly conditioned on a Democrat win.