Voters in Montenegro are casting their ballots in a presidential election marked by political turmoil and uncertainty over whether the small Balkan NATO member state will unblock its bid to join the European Union or instead seek to improve ties. with Serbia and Russia.
Polling stations in Montenegro opened on Sunday at 07:00 (06:00 GMT) and will close at 20:00 (19:00 GMT). The first unofficial results from pollsters, based on a sample of the electorate, are expected about two hours later.
If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, a second round of top-two voting is scheduled for April 2.
Analysts predict that the first round of the presidential election will not produce a clear winner and that incumbent Milo Djukanovic, 61, will face one of several contenders in the runoff.
Djukanovic, the current pro-Western president, has held senior political posts in the country for 33 years and is seeking another five-year term.
Although the presidency is largely ceremonial in Montenegro, voting is seen as a key indicator of popular sentiment ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for June 11.
“I do not plan to lose this election and I can be expected to lead my party in the parliamentary vote,” Djukanovic said after casting his ballot. “I think there will be a second round… and that we will have a fair duel. I am convinced of my superiority.
Djukanovic’s opponents include a leader of the pro-Serbia and pro-Russia Democratic Front party, Andrija Mandic, economist Jakov Milatovic of the newly formed Europe Now group and former parliament speaker Aleksa Becic.
Observers say Milatovic, who served in the government elected after the 2020 parliamentary vote but later split from the ruling coalition, may have the best chance of reaching the runoff against Djukanovic.
Milatovic accused Djukanovic and his party of corruption and said the final removal of the president from power is necessary for Montenegro to move forward.
After casting his vote, Mandic told reporters that if he won, his presidency would create “a policy of reconciliation focused on all citizens and that he will be waging a strong fight against corruption and organized crime.”
Djukanovic and his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) led Montenegro to independence from Serbia in 2006 and challenged Russia to join NATO in 2017, an alliance dominated by parties seeking closer ties with Serbia and Russia. ousted DPS from power in 2020.
However, the new ruling alliance soon descended into chaos, halting Montenegro’s path towards the EU and creating a political stalemate. The last government fell in a vote of no confidence in August, but has been in office for months due to deadlock.
Djukanovic has seen his popularity plummet. Opponents accuse the president and the DPS of corruption, ties to organized crime and running the country of some 620,000 people as his personal fiefdom, charges Djukanovic and his party deny.
He now hopes to restore trust among Montenegro’s roughly 540,000 eligible voters and help pave the way for his party’s return to power.
Djukanovic has described the presidential election as a choice between an independent Montenegro and a country controlled by neighboring Serbia and Russia.
“Just a few years ago, no one could have imagined that we would once again fight a decisive battle for the survival of Montenegro,” he told supporters. “Unfortunately, with the change of power two and a half years ago, the horizon of European values has irresponsibly closed.”
Political chaos and stalled reforms in a country long seen as next in line for EU membership has alarmed EU and US officials, who fear Russia is trying to stir up trouble in the Balkans to divert attention from the war in Ukraine.
Montenegro’s citizens remain deeply divided between supporters of Djukanovic’s policies and those who see themselves as Serbs and want Montenegro to ally with Serbia and the Slavic country of Russia.
Mandic, from the Democratic Front party, accused of being part of a 2016 Russian-orchestrated coup attempthe has tried to present himself as a conciliatory figure during the campaign, saying that his main goal as president would be to close the Montenegrin divide.
The country joined NATO a year after a failed coup attempt that the government blamed on Russian agents and Serb nationalists. Moscow dismissed such claims as absurd.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, Montenegro joined EU sanctions against Russia. The Kremlin has placed Montenegro on its list of hostile states.