BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia's powerful Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic was on his way to a landslide victory Sunday in a presidential election that was a test of his authoritarian rule amid growing Russian influence in the Balkan region.
A projection by independent pollster Ipsos Strategic Marketing had Vucic receiving more than 55 percent of the votes cast — more than enough to claim the presidency outright.
The polling agency's projection showed liberal challenger Sasa Jankovic placing second with 15 percent and Luka Maksimovic, a media student who ran as a parody politician, coming in third with 9 percent.
The agency had a representative sample of votes from different polling stations and issued its projection with 70 percent of the vote sample tallied. Official results are expected Monday.
Vucic, a former ultranationalist now a declared pro-European Union politician, was already slated to win the presidency by a high margin against 10 opposition candidates.
He needed to win by more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff election on April 16 that would have put him in a much trickier position against a single opposition candidate.
The prime minister since 2014, Vucic was expected to use a win to appoint a figurehead successor as prime minister and to transform the presidency from a ceremonial office into a more powerful post from which he could rule unchallenged.
The opposition has accused Vucic of muzzling the media and intimidating voters ahead of the election. Vucic denied the allegations, saying only he can bring stability to a region scarred by the wars of the 1990s, which Vucic 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, an independent candidate with no party affiliation, said Sunday he was 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.
Contrary to his claims that he wants to lead Serbia into the EU, Vucic has been pushing for deeper ties with longtime ally Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has endorsed him.
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.
The biggest surprise of the election was Maksimovic, a media student who ran as a parody politician.
As a satirical candidate decked out in a white suit, oversized jewelry and a man-bun. , Maksimovic mocked corruption in Serbian politics by promising to steal if he were elected. His supporters were mostly young voters alienated by Serbia's decades-long crisis and economic decline.
Maksimovic' s widely viewed videos on social media networks portray him doing pushups, sucking a raw egg and riding a white horse surrounded by mock bodyguards.