Sasa Jankovic, center, a Serbian presidential candidate, casts his ballot for the presidential elections at a polling station in Belgrade, Serbia, Sunday, April 2, 2017. Voters in Serbia are casting ballots in a presidential election seen as a test of public support for populist Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic and his autocratic rule. (AP Photo/Marko Drobnjakovic)
BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia's powerful Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic claimed victory Sunday in the presidential election that was a test of his authoritarian rule amid growing Russian influence in the Balkan region.
Speaking to supporters at his right-wing party's headquarters, Vucic said, "My victory is crystal clear. This is a very important day for us, showing which way Serbia should be heading."
"A huge majority of people in Serbia support continuation of the reform process, continuation of the European path for Serbia along with preserving our traditionally good ties with Russia and China," Vucic said, while his backers chanted "Victory, victory!"
Vucic spoke after projections by different independent polling agencies had him receiving more than 55 percent of the votes cast during Sunday's election. Liberal challenger Sasa Jankovic placed second with 15 percent and Luka Maksimovic, a media student who ran as a parody politician, came in third with 9 percent, according to the pollsters.
Official results are expected Monday.
Vucic, a former ultranationalist who now declares support for Serbia joining the European Union, had been forecast to win the presidency by a high margin. He needed to win 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.
Vucic has been prime minister since 2014. He is expected to use a win in the presidential race 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.
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 opposed to 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 endorsed him.
Right before the election, Vucic 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 portrayed him doing pushups, sucking a raw egg and riding a white horse surrounded by mock bodyguards.
Associated Press writers Amer Cohadzic, Ivana Bzganovic and Jovana Gec contributed.Associated Press