Voters in Montenegro cast their ballots in presidential elections marked by political turmoil and uncertainty over whether the small NATO member state in the Balkans will unblock its bid to join the European Union or instead try to cut ties with Serbia and Russia.
Polling stations in Montenegro opened at 07:00 (06:00 GMT) on Sunday and closes at 20:00 (19:00 GMT). The first unofficial poll results, based on a sample of the electorate, are expected about two hours later.
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 produce no clear winner and that incumbent Milo Djukanovic, 61, will face one of many challengers in the second round.
Djukanovic, the incumbent pro-Western president, has held top political positions in the country for 33 years and is seeking a new five-year term.
Although the presidency in Montenegro is largely ceremonial, the vote is seen as an important indicator of popular sentiment ahead of parliamentary elections on June 11.
“I do not intend to lose this election and it is expected that I will lead my party in the vote in parliament,” Djukanovic said after casting his vote. “I believe there will be a second round… and we will have a fair game. I am convinced of my superiority.”
Opponents of Djukanovic include a leader of the staunchly pro-Serb and pro-Russian 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, is most likely to make it to the second round against Djukanovic.
Milatovic has accused Djukanovic and his party of corruption and said the president’s final disqualification is needed to move Montenegro forward.
After casting his vote, Mandic told reporters that if he were to win, his presidency would “create a policy of reconciliation aimed at all citizens and will fight vigorously against corruption and organized crime”.
Djukanovic and his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) led Montenegro to independence from Serbia in 2006 and defied Russia to join NATO in 2017. An alliance dominated by parties seeking closer ties with Serbia and Russia ousted DPS in power in 2020.
However, the new ruling alliance soon fell into disarray, blocking Montenegro’s path to the EU and causing a political deadlock. The last government fell in August in a vote of no confidence, but has been in power for months due to the stalemate.
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 their personal kingdom – accusations Djukanovic and his party deny.
He now hopes to regain confidence among Montenegro’s approximately 540,000 eligible voters and pave the way for his party’s return to power.
Djukanovic has portrayed the presidential election as a choice between an independent Montenegro and a country controlled by neighboring Serbia and Russia.
“Only a few years ago, no one could have imagined that we would 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 was irresponsibly closed.”
The political chaos and stalled reforms in a country long seen as the next country in line for EU membership has alarmed the EU and the United States, which fear Russia could try to stir up trouble in the Balkans to divert attention from the war in Ukraine.
The citizens of Montenegro remain deeply divided between supporters of Djukanovic’s policies and those who consider themselves Serbs and want Montenegro to ally with Serbia and fellow Slavic country Russia.
The Democratic Front Party’s Mandic, who was accused of being part of a 2016 Russian-orchestrated coup attempt, has tried to present himself as a conciliatory figure during the campaign, saying his main goal as president would be to Montenegrin gap to bridge.
The country joined NATO a year after the failed coup, which the government blamed on Russian agents and Serbian nationalists. Moscow rejected such claims as absurd.
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, Montenegro joined EU sanctions against Russia. The Kremlin has placed Montenegro on its list of unfriendly states.