Montenegrins are voting in a presidential election marked by political turmoil and uncertainty over whether the small NATO member in the Balkans will drop its bid to join the European Union or instead seek better relations with Serbia and Russia.
Polling stations in Montenegro opened their doors on Sunday at 7 am (06:00 GMT) and will close at 8 pm (19:00 GMT). The first unofficial results by pollsters, based on a sample of voters, are expected in about two hours.
If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, a second round of voting between the top two is scheduled for April 2.
Analysts predict that the first round of the presidential election will not yield a clear winner and that incumbent Milo Djukanovic, 61, will face one of several challengers in a run-off.
The current pro-Western president, Djukanovic has held top political positions in the country for 33 years and is seeking another five-year term.
Although the presidency is largely ceremonial in Montenegro, polling is seen as a major indicator of popular sentiment ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for June 11.
“I do not plan to lose this election and I am expected to lead my party in the parliamentary vote,” Djukanovic said after casting his vote. “I think there will be a run-off… and that we will have a fair duel. I am convinced of my superiority.”
Djukanovic’s opponents include the staunchly pro-Serbian and pro-Russian Democratic Front leader Andrija Mandic, economist Yakov Milatovic of the newly formed Europe Now group, and former parliament speaker Alexa Bekic.
Observers say Milatović, who served in the government elected after the 2020 parliamentary elections but later split from the ruling coalition, may have the best chance of entering a run-off against Djukanovic.
Milatović accused Djukanovic and his party of corruption, saying the eventual removal of the president from power was necessary for Montenegro to move forward.
After casting his vote, Mandić told reporters that if he won, his presidency would create “a reconciliation policy centered on all citizens which will wage a powerful war against corruption and organized crime”.
Djukanovic and his Social Democratic Party (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 DPS ousted from power in 2020.
However, the new ruling coalition soon plunged into disarray, blocking Montenegro’s path towards the European Union and creating a political deadlock. The last government fell in a vote of no confidence in August but has been in power for several months due to deadlock.
Djokanovic experienced a sharp decline in popularity. Opponents accuse the president and the DPS of corruption, links to organized crime and running the country of 620,000 people as their personal fiefdom – accusations that Djukanovic and his party deny.
He now hopes to restore confidence among the roughly 540,000 eligible voters in Montenegro and help pave the way for his party’s return to power.
Djukanovic portrayed the presidential election as a choice between independent Montenegro and a country dominated by neighboring Serbia and Russia.
“Just a few years ago, no one could have imagined that we would once again wage a decisive battle for the survival of Montenegro,” he told his supporters. “Unfortunately, with the change of power two and a half years ago, the horizon of European values has been irresponsibly closed.”
Political chaos and stalled reforms in a country long seen as next in line for EU membership have worried EU and US officials, who fear Russia is trying to stir up unrest in the Balkans to divert attention from the war in Ukraine.
Montenegrins remain deeply divided between supporters of Djukanovic’s policies and those who consider themselves Serbs and want Montenegro to ally itself with Serbia and the Slavic country Russia.
Mandyk of the Democratic Front party, who was accused of being part of a The coup attempt orchestrated by Russia in 2016he sought to present himself as a conciliatory figure during the campaign, saying that his main goal as president would be to bridge the divide in Montenegro.
The country joined NATO a year after a failed coup attempt that the government blamed on Russian agents and Serbian nationalists. Moscow dismissed such allegations as absurd.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, Montenegro joined EU sanctions against Russia. The Kremlin has put Montenegro on its list of unfriendly countries.