Voters in Montenegro are casting ballots in a presidential election 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 seek to improve ties with Serbia and Russia.
Polling stations in Montenegro opened on Sunday at 7am (06:00 GMT) and will close at 8pm (19:00 GMT). First unofficial results by pollsters, based on a sample of the electorate, are expected about two hours later.
If no candidate secures more than 50 percent of votes, 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 produce a clear winner and that incumbent Milo Djukanovic, 61, will face one of several challengers in the runoff vote.
Djukanovic, the incumbent pro-Western president, has held top political posts in the country for 33 years and is seeking another five-year term.
Though the presidency is largely ceremonial in Montenegro, the ballot is seen as a key indicator of popular sentiment ahead of a parliamentary election set for June 11.
“I don’t plan to lose this election and it can be expected that I lead my party at the parliamentary vote,” Djukanovic said after casting his ballot. “I believe there will be a runoff … and that we will have a fair duel. I am convinced of my superiority.”
Djukanovic’s opponents include a leader of the staunchly 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 stand the best chance of making it into the runoff against Djukanovic.
Milatovic has accused Djukanovic and his party of corruption, saying the president’s final removal from power is necessary for Montenegro to move forward.
After casting his ballot, Mandic told reporters that if he won, his presidency would create “a policy of reconciliation focused on all citizens and which will be waging a strong fight against corruption and organised 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 from power in 2020.
The new ruling alliance, however, soon plunged into disarray, which stalled Montenegro’s path toward the EU and created a political deadlock. The latest government fell in a no-confidence vote in August, but has remained in office for months because of the stalemate.
Djukanovic has seen his popularity plummet. Opponents accuse the president and DPS of corruption, links to organised crime, and of running the country of some 620,000 people as their personal fiefdom – charges Djukanovic and his party deny.
He now hopes to regain trust among Montenegro’s approximately 540,000 eligible voters and help 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 neighbouring Serbia and Russia.
“Only a few years ago, no one could imagine that we would once again wage 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 been irresponsibly closed.”
The political chaos and stalled reforms in a country long seen as the next in line for EU membership has alarmed EU and United States officials, who fear Russia could try to stir 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 view themselves as Serbs and want Montenegro to ally itself with Serbia and fellow-Slavic country Russia.
The Democratic Front party’s Mandic, who was accused of being part of a Russia-orchestrated 2016 coup attempt, has sought to present himself as a conciliatory figure during the campaign, saying his main goal as president would be to bridge the Montenegrin divide.
The country joined NATO a year after the botched coup attempt that the government blamed on Russian agents and Serbian 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 unfriendly states.