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Ivica Dacic, kingmaker of Serbian politics

Ivica Dacic, leader of late strongman Slobodan Milosevic's socialists, has established himself as a kingmaker on Serbia's political scene, despite the party's tarnished legacy of the 1990s.

Dacic took over the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) in 2006 after Milosevic's death and rebuilt it after being almost wiped out after the strongman's ouster in 2000 and a crushing poll defeat that year.

Having inherited a party heavily burdened by its role in the Balkans wars and the international isolation that followed, Dacic set out a new course.

Carefully balancing the needs of maintaining his traditional hardline nationalist electorate and attracting a new generation of supporters to the left, Dacic turned the SPS into a pro-Western, pro-European party.

"We have learned from our mistakes," he said when he was elected party leader in 2006. "The conductor has changed, so the choir must change its tune. The SPS has to have its new beginning, otherwise it will be finished."

Dacic's objective for the party was that "no future government should be formed without the SPS."

In 2008 elections, his party won just 7.6 percent of the vote but became kingmaker as neither the pro-European coalition led by President Boris Tadic nor the ultra-nationalist radicals could form a government alone.

Dacic brokered a reconciliation with his former arch-enemy, Tadic's Democratic Party (DS), which was at the core of the coalition that had ousted Milosevic and extradited him to a UN war crimes court in the early 2000s.

In the DS-led coalition, Dacic became a deputy premier and interior minister. Latest polls show that he can expect to reap the rewards of his new course in Sunday's parliamentary elections with some 12 percent of the vote.

Top of his class at Belgrade's Faculty for Political Science, the 46-year-old boasts of being Serbia's "only politician by training".

He joined the SPS in 1989 when Milosevic founded it from the old communist party and quickly rose to become party spokesman, serving as Milosevic's mouthpiece until right before his ouster.

Nowadays Dacic describes his relationship with the notorious Serb leader as "purely professional".

In 2003 Dacic openly rebelled against Milosevic's attempts to keep leading the SPS from his prison cell in The Hague.

In a bid to shake off Milosevic's legacy, Dacic has presented his party as a champion of the so-called losers of Serbia's transition to a market economy, rather than focus on nationalist issues.

To keep his appeal to nationalists, he has tried to cast himself as a champion of national dignity.

"EU integration is possible only if it is in the interest of Serbia. If Europe does not want us, we can (pursue) a different politics," he said, hinting at closer ties with Serbia's traditional ally Russia.

Looking more like a communist-era apparatchik than a modern politician, the married father of two styles himself as a Serbian everyman.

He is known to grab the mike and belt out traditional songs with local folk singers and other celebrities.

Despite some campaign swipes at the DS, analysts expect that Dacic will join Tadic again for a future government to continue with political and economic reforms needed for further EU integration.

ks/sb/fz

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