© Reuters. Voters queue at a polling station during the presidential elections in Podgorica, Montenegro, March 19, 2023. REUTERS/Stevo Vasiljevic
PODGORICA (Reuters) – Montenegrins began voting on Sunday in a presidential election that will influence the outcome of a parliamentary vote in June as well as the small Adriatic country’s stance toward the West and its ties with neighbouring Serbia.
Polling stations in Montenegro, which is a NATO member and a candidate to join the European Union, opened at 7 a.m. (0600 GMT) and will close at 8 p.m. (1900 GMT). First unofficial results by pollsters, based on a sample of the electorate, are expected about two hours later.
Milo Djukanovic, the incumbent pro-Western president, has held top political posts in the country for 33 years and is seeking another five-year term.
His main opponents are Andrija Mandic, the head of the Democratic Front which favours closer ties with Serbia and Russia, and Jakov Milatovic, a pro-Western economist and the deputy head of the Europe Now movement.
If no candidate secures more than 50% of votes, a second round of voting between the top two is scheduled for April 2.
Opponents accuse Djukanovic and his left-centrist Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) of corruption, links to organized crime, and of running the country of some 620,000 people as their personal fiefdom – charges Djukanovic and his party deny.
Sunday’s vote comes amid a year-long political crisis marked by no-confidence votes in two separate governments and a row between lawmakers and Djukanovic over the president’s refusal to name a new prime minister.
On Thursday Djukanovic dissolved the parliament and scheduled snap elections for June 11. A victory in the presidential election would bolster the chances of the winner’s party in the parliamentary vote.
“I am expecting people will open their eyes, …. that we will start to go forward for a better life,” said Mirjana Aleksic, 53, from Podgorica after casting her ballot at a polling station in a local school.
Over the years, Montenegro has been divided between those who identify as Montenegrins and those who see themselves as Serbs and opposed the country’s 2006 independence from a former union with neighbouring and much larger Serbia.
The country, which mainly relies on revenues from its Adriatic tourism, joined NATO in 2017, following a botched coup attempt a year earlier that the government blamed on Russian agents and Serbian nationalists. Moscow dismissed such claims as absurd.
Following the invasion of Ukraine last year, Montenegro joined EU sanctions against Russia. The Kremlin has placed Montenegro on its list of unfriendly states.