President of Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic speaks for final pre-election rally before the second round of Presidential elections at "Moraca" sports hall in Montenegro's capital Podgorica, on March 31, 2023. (PHOTO / AFP)
PODGORICA – Montenegrins went to the polls on Sunday in a run-off presidential election pitting incumbent Milo Djukanovic against a Western-educated economist pledging to lift the nation out of a crisis marked by no-confidence votes in two governments.
Polling stations opened at 7 am (0500 GMT) and will close at 8 pm (1800 GMT). First unofficial results by pollsters, based on a sample of the electorate, are expected about two hours later.
Djukanovic, 61, has dominated Montenegro as president or prime minister for 33 years, since the start of the collapse of the now-defunct federal Yugoslavia. He led Montenegro to independence from a state union with much larger Serbia in 2006 and to NATO membership in 2017. The country is also a candidate to join the European Union.
Sunday's vote follows a year of political instability in which two governments were felled by no-confidence votes. It was also marked by a dispute between lawmakers and Djukanovic over his refusal to name a new prime minister
Opponents have long accused the former communist and his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) of corruption, ties with organized crime and running the small Adriatic republic as their fiefdom – allegations they deny.
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Nikola Zarkovic, a student, said he hoped the vote would bring benefit to everyone in the country, which mainly relies on revenue from tourism along its scenic coast.
"The free and independent Montenegro will be victorious, as always," he said after voting in a school inside one of drab Communist-era apartment blocks in Podgorica.
Djukanovic's rival is Jakov Milatovic, 37, a former economy minister and the deputy head of the Europe Now movement that has pledged to curb graft, improve living standards and bolster ties with the European Union and fellow ex-Yugoslav republic Serbia.
Tight race expected
"I am expecting a good day … a historic day. As do most of the people, I want changes for the better," said Milan Popovic, a 64-year-old teacher.
Djukanovic wound up with 35.37 percent of the vote in the first round of the election on March 19, with Milatovic on 28.92 percent, necessitating a run-off because neither garnered a 50 percent majority. Analysts have predicted a tight race in the run-off.
Sunday's vote follows a year of political instability in which two governments were felled by no-confidence votes. It was also marked by a dispute between lawmakers and Djukanovic over his refusal to name a new prime minister.
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On March 16, Djukanovic dissolved parliament and scheduled snap elections for June 11. Although the presidential post in Montenegro is largely ceremonial, victory in the election would bolster the chances of the winner's party in June.
Montenegro has a legacy of bitter divisions between those who identify as Montenegrins and those who see themselves as Serbs and are opposed to the country's independence.
The country joined NATO after a 2016 coup attempt that the Djukanovic government blamed on Russian agents and Serbian nationalists. Moscow dismissed such claims as absurd.