© Reuters. Voters line up at a polling station during presidential elections in Podgorica, Montenegro March 19, 2023. REUTERS/Stevo Vasiljevic
By Aleksandar Vasovic
PODGORICA (Reuters) – Montenegrins voted in a presidential election on Sunday that will influence the outcome of a parliamentary vote in June as well as the small Adriatic country’s stance towards the West and its ties with neighboring Serbia.
Polling stations in Montenegro, a NATO member country and candidate for membership of the European Union, opened at 7:00 a.m. (06:00 GMT) and will close at 8:00 p.m. (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 obtains more than 50% of the votes, a second ballot between the first two is scheduled for April 2.
Milo Djukanovic, the pro-Western incumbent president, has held top political posts in the country for 33 years and is seeking another five-year term.
“This (election) is a chance for Montenegro to confirm that it can live in political and social stability, … and continue (on a path) … to be part of the united countries of Europe,” Djukanovic told reporters. after the vote. .
His main opponents are Andrija Mandic, the head of the Democratic Front which advocates a rapprochement with Serbia and Russia, and Jakov Milatovic, a pro-Western economist and deputy head of the Europe Now movement.
After casting his vote, Mandic told reporters that if he won, his presidency would create “a policy of reconciliation centered on all citizens and which will lead a relentless fight against corruption and organized crime”.
Opponents accuse Djukanovic and his center-left Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) of corruption, links to organized crime and running the country of some 620,000 people as their personal fiefdom – charges Djukanovic and his party deny.
“I’m sure the people decided to vote for a richer, fairer and more beautiful Montenegro,” Milatovic said after the vote.
Sunday’s vote comes amid a year-long political crisis marked by votes of no confidence in two separate governments and a row between lawmakers and Djukanovic over the president’s refusal to appoint a new prime minister.
On Thursday, Djukanovic dissolved parliament and scheduled early elections for June 11. A victory in the presidential election would strengthen the chances of the winner’s party in the parliamentary vote.
“I’m waiting for people…we’re going to start moving forward for a better life,” Mirjana Aleksic, 53, from Podgorica said after casting her vote at a local school polling station.
Over the years, Montenegro has been divided between those who identify as Montenegrins and those who consider themselves Serbs and opposed the country’s independence in 2006 from a former union with neighboring and much larger Serbia .
The country, which depends mainly on revenue from its tourism in the Adriatic, joined NATO in 2017, following a failed coup attempt a year earlier that the government blamed on Russian agents and Serbian nationalists. Moscow dismissed these claims as absurd.
After Ukraine’s invasion last year, Montenegro joined EU sanctions against Russia. The Kremlin has placed Montenegro on its list of hostile states.