Serbia's most influential opposition party holds its first major anti-government rally in years on Saturday, a test of its strength a year ahead of the next scheduled election.
A pro-European Union coalition has governed Serbia since 2008, but persistent economic hardship and frustration with slow EU integration has left many disgruntled with the government.
"This is not only about social issues," Tomislav Nikolic, head of the Serbian Progressive Party, said in an interview ahead the rally in front of the parliament building in Belgrade.
"It is about the fact that the people are feeling that the state is crumbling before their eyes."
His party, one of several scheduled to participate in the protest, is demanding early elections, higher wages and a crackdown on corruption in the EU applicant country.
"If they don't respond to our demands, we will start continuous protests from April," Nikolic said.
Serbia has emerged from 2009 recession to modest recovery of 1.5 percent growth in 2010 and expects 3 percent growth in 2011.
Teachers in most schools went on strike last month and an independent police union joined them this week, while doctors, nurses and pharmacists said they may also join in.
The government has so far dismissed their demands for higher wages arguing it will overburden the budget.
"It is clear that the opposition will try to use social discontent," Bozidar Djelic, Serbia's deputy prime minister, told Reuters. "The only way they can change the government is to win a majority in the parliament and elections are in 2012."
Nikolic dismissed fears the rally could turn violent as in Albania two weeks ago when three anti-government protesters were shot dead at a rally. "It will be an event where people can bring families," he said.
Some political insiders and experts say the discontent could lead to early elections later this year, but others disagree.
"I am not sure major political changes sparked by economic factors will come easy. Austerity is a political factor, but it is not a decisive one," said Djordje Vukovic, an analyst with Belgrade's CESID think-tank.
Nikolic launched his party in 2008 after splitting from the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party which he led since 2003.
ReutersLast Mod: 05 Şubat 2011, 12:27