Serb nationalist Tomislav Nikolic upset the odds to defeat incumbent Boris Tadic in a presidential run-off Sunday but vowed to pursue his predecessor's drive for the Balkans nation to join the EU.
Nikolic, a one-time ally of the late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, led with 49.4 percent in 70 percent of polling stations surveyed while Tadic trailed at 47.4 percent, initial estimates by independent election monitor CESID showed.
Tadic then conceded defeat.
"I congratulate him on the victory, it was a fair and well-earned victory and I wish him luck," Tadic, who has been in power since 2004, said.
According to the count of Nikolic's Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) the nationalist leader was running ahead by 1.5 percentage points.
Surveys conducted just ahead of the second round had projected that Democratic Party leader Tadic would win comfortably with up to 58 percent of the vote.
Tadic, 54, who brought the once international pariah state to the European Union's doorstep with candidacy status in March, had pitched his bid for a third term in office as a referendum on pursuing EU membership.
Nikolic, 60, promised to steer a pro-European course.
"Serbia will not turn away from the European path," he said.
"These elections were not about who will take Serbia to the EU, but who will solve the economic problems created by the Democratic Party" of Boris Tadic, Nikolic added.
The recent convert to the European cause has warned he would not join the 27-member bloc at any cost.
"This is a turning point for Serbia", he said.
"This was an electoral earthquake, a totally unexpected result," political analyst Slobodan Antonic said on Serbia's RTS state television.
"This will definitely change things in Serbia," he said.
While the ruling parties did will in parliamentary elections two weeks ago "maybe voters now decided it was the time to punish them a bit," he said.
During this election campaign Nikolic, who lost to Tadic in 2004 and 2008, tapped into voter discontent about the worsening economic situation in Serbia, which has one of the highest jobless rates in Europe at 24 percent.
Nikolic, who once served as a deputy prime minister under Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic, began a transformation from an ultranationalist to a pro-EU populist in 2008 in founding his Serbian Progressive Party.
He dropped much of his previous party's hardline positions while keeping his hardline rhetoric.
He had previously made breakaway Kosovo the red line for EU membership.
"We want to join the EU. It has projects, jobs and investments for us," he told an election rally before the vote.
"But if they say, you can join the EU, but Kosovo is not yours, (then) thanks a lot, good-bye."
Although Kosovo -- the southern majority-ethnic-Albanian province that proclaimed independence in 2008 with EU and US approval -- was once a key issue for Nikolic, he has largely dropped it from the current campaign.
At the Cvetko Market in Belgrade's Zvezdara neighbourhood, Pavle Knezevic, who started selling vegetables after he lost his job two years ago, said change could be good for Serbia after eight years of Tadic.
"Maybe for Serbia it would be better to have new leadership," the 42-year-old told AFP.
Tadic narrowly emerged on top in the May 6 first round, but Nikolic, a one-time ally of the late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, accused him of vote fraud.
The claims were dismissed both by Serbia's prosecutor and electoral officials.
By 7:00 pm (1700 GMT), an hour before the polls closed, turnout stood at 41.5 percent, significantly lower than in the first round of voting two weeks ago, with ballotting proceeding smoothly, according to CESID.
In Kosovo the vote was organised by the European Organisation for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) which did not report any irregularities in the breakaway province.
Source: AFP Global Edition