(AP) Serbia's president formally dissolved parliament Wednesday and scheduled an early election for March 16, saying the vote will secure popular support for painful social and economic reforms in the troubled Balkan country.
President Tomislav Nikolic said the coalition government, led by his right-wing populist Serbian Progressive Party, "wanted to test its legitimacy."
"A lot of work and difficult and painful reform lie ahead, which will improve the lives of our citizens," Nikolic said. "We will get a new government, which will have even more will, energy and enthusiasm" to carry out the reforms.
The vote is expected to cement the populists' grip on power in the country, which is faced with a deep economic and social crisis.
The former pro-Russian ultranationalists turned pro-European Union reformers are by far the most popular party in Serbia. Their leader, Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, hopes the early vote will give him a mandate to become the prime minister and rule without the support of the Socialists, whose leader, Ivica Dacic, is now premier in the coalition government.
Vucic, once a firebrand ultranationalist, has said he wants to speed up painful reforms so Serbia can advance its bid to join the 28-nation EU.
However, Vucic last week shelved unpopular labor, bankruptcy and privatization proposals drafted by the man he chose to be the coalition's economy minister.
Responding to Vucic's pre-election claims that only the Progressives can carry out radical changes in the economy, former Economy Minister Sasa Radulovic said in his resignation letter that Vucic and his aides are the main obstacle to the reforms.
Radulovic said the government lacks the will to adopt the unpopular austerity measures because Vucic and Dacic fear that could hurt their parties' chances in the upcoming vote.
In the snap elections, Vucic's party will face a fractured opposition led by the pro-Western Democratic Party. All pre-election polls give the populists about 40 percent of the vote, while the Democrats trail second with about 16 percent.
Serbia held its last parliamentary vote in May 2012.