Voters in Montenegro are casting ballots in a presidential election marked by political turmoil and uncertainty over whether the small Nato member in the Balkans will unblock its bid to join the European Union or seek to improve ties with Serbia and Russia.
Analysts predict the presidential election will not produce a clear winner and incumbent Milo Djukanovic, 61, will face one of several challengers in a run-off vote in two weeks.
Though the presidency is largely ceremonial in Montenegro, the ballot is seen as a key indicator of popular sentiments ahead of an early parliamentary election set for June 11.
Mr Djukanovic’s opponents include a leader of the staunchly pro-Serbia and pro-Russia Popular Front party, Andrija Mandic, economist Jakov Milatovic of the newly-formed Europe Now group, and former parliament speaker Aleksa Becic.
Mr Djukanovic and his Democratic Party of Socialists 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 towards 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.
Mr Djukanovic – who has served multiple times as both president and prime minister in the past 30 years – has seen his popularity plummet following the ousting of the DPS-dominated coalition. He now hopes to regain trust among Montenegro’s 540,000 eligible voters and help pave the way for his party’s return to power.
He told supporters: “Only a few years ago, no-one could imagine that we would once again wage a decisive battle for the survival of Montenegro.
“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 European Union membership has alarmed US and EU officials, who fear Russia could try to stir trouble in the Balkans to divert attention from the war in Ukraine.
Montenegro’s 620,000 citizens remain deeply divided between supporters of Mr Djukanovic’s policies and those who view themselves as Serbs and want Montenegro to ally itself with Serbia and fellow-Slavic Russia.
The Popular Front party’s Mr 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.
Mr Milatovic, the economist, has accused Mr Djukanovic and his party of corruption, saying the president’s final removal from power is necessary for Montenegro to move forward.