BELGRADE (Reuters) - Conservative Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic is runaway favourite to win Sunday's Serbian presidential elections despite opposition warnings about the extent of his domination over the Balkan country, balanced between the West and Russia.
Most polls see Vucic, 47, winning in the first round with more than 50 percent of the vote, trailed in the low teens by a former rights advocate and a white-suited student whose satirical portrayal of a sleazy political fraudster has struck a chord with some disillusioned voters.
The role of president is largely ceremonial, but Vucic is expected to retain real power through his control of Serbia's ruling Progressive Party.
As such, the election is unlikely to alter the country's delicate balancing act between the European Union, which Vucic wants Serbia to join, and Russia, with which Serbs share their Orthodox Christian faith and Slavic heritage.
During the campaign, the studio backdrop of one popular television talkshow on which Vucic was a guest featured a photograph of him flanked by pictures of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
To his supporters, Vucic is a cool head and a firm hand in a troubled region.
"He's done a good job so far," said Slavica Antonic, 69, an ice-cream vendor in downtown Belgrade. "He doesn't insult anyone in the region," she said.
Vucic's opponents, however, say he has an authoritarian streak that has led him to take control over the media in Serbia since his party rose to power in 2012 and he became prime minister three years ago.
He denies the charge but has struggled to shake it given his record when last in government in the dying days of Yugoslavia; then, in his late 20s, Vucic was Serbia's feared information minister behind draconian legislation designed to muzzle criticism of the government during the 1998-99 Kosovo war.
"The state of the media reflects the way Aleksandar Vucic rules Serbia - using pressure, abuse and often false statements," Sasa Jankovic, Serbia's former human rights ombudsman who was polling a distant second or third before Sunday's vote, told N1 television.
"PROXY" PRIME MINISTER
Jankovic and a host of opposition candidates risk being embarrassed by 25-year-old communications student Luka Maksimovic, whose alter ego Ljubisa 'Beli' Preletacevic has come from almost nowhere to challenge them for second place.
Dressed in a white suit and loafers, the pony-tailed Maksimovic plays on a widely-held perception of Balkan politicians as out to line their own pockets at the expense of the downtrodden masses. Despite economic growth and greater fiscal stability, Serbia remains mired in poverty and corruption.
Pollsters said a high turnout among Serbia's 6.7 million eligible voters may yet force a run-off on April 16, Easter weekend.
"There are no good candidates and many of my younger friends say they will boycott," said Belgrade pensioner Miodrag Stajic, 74. But, he argued, "they have to take the future of this country in their hands."
As president, Vucic would have few formal powers, among them the right return legislation to parliament for reconsideration.
But he is widely expected to appoint a loyal ally as prime minister and try to keep a tight rein on policy, as former President Boris Tadic, then of the Democratic Party, did between 2004 and 2012.
Some analysts said that could yet prove difficult.
"Vucic will now be distanced from everyday policy-making and executive affairs and will have to rely on a proxy," Eurasia Group wrote in on March 30.
"This will likely generate some tensions in the chain of command."
(Editing by Matt Robinson and Ralph Boulton)