Montenegro votes in presidential runoff
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Montenegro votes in presidential runoff

Montenegro President Milo Djukanovic faces a stiff challenge from a rising political star
Montenegro President Milo Djukanovic faces a stiff challenge from a rising political star

PODGORICA (MONTENEGRO) - Montenegrins headed to the polls on Sunday to elect their next president in a vote that could see a young upstart unseat incumbent Milo Djukanovic, who has dominated the country's political scene for decades.

The outcome of the contest is likely to determine the balance of power in the Balkan nation ahead of snap parliamentary elections due in June, following months of gridlock after the government collapsed in August.

Montenegro's president, elected for a five-year term, has a mostly ceremonial position and most of the political power resides with the prime minister.

Polls opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) local time and close at 8:00 pm. Unofficial results are expected late on Sunday.

The runoff comes two weeks after the first round, where Djukanovic beat back a range of opponents hoping to shake up the political scene. He garnered 35 percent of the vote compared to 29 percent for his main challenger, Jakov Milatovic.

However, analysts have largely favoured Milatovic to become the new president.

They argue the pro-European economist is likely to appeal to a large number of voters desperate for change after decades of rule by Djukanovic and his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS).

"I’m absolutely convinced that I will become the new president of the country, that today the citizens of Montenegro will send the current president into the political past," said Milatovic on Sunday before casting his vote.

The DPS has witnessed repeated setbacks since the party suffered its first major defeat in the 2020 parliamentary elections.

- Upstart versus incumbent -

Since then, Montenegro has stumbled from crisis to crisis that has seen the collapse of two governments.

Djukanovic, backed by autocratic former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, arrived at the helm of the former Yugoslav republic in 1991, when he was just 29.

But as Serbia increasingly became an international pariah, Djukanovic pivoted West, broke ties with Belgrade and helped usher in Montenegro's independence in 2006.

Under the leadership of Djukanovic and his party, Montenegro joined NATO, kick-started the negotiating process for European Union membership and moved away from Russia's influence.

After voting on Sunday, Djukanovic promised to keep pursuing a European future for Montenegro.

"I think this is a good moment -- the starting moment for Montenegro to announce its return to the path of European development," said Djukanovic.

However, his party's rule has been plagued by allegations of widespread corruption and links to organised crime, which Djukanovic denies.

"Here we have a man who has been in power for 30 years. A man who is the personification of a classic dictatorship, a classic abuse of power. The man who has allowed corruption and crime to flourish," Mladen Vukovic, a doctor in Podgorica, told AFP.

Ahead of Sunday's vote, Djukanovic repeatedly questioned whether Milatovic, 36, and his Europe Now party could secure an EU future for Montenegro, while accusing him of being vulnerable to Serbian influence.

- Montenegrin identity -

Djukanovic, 61, has also courted ethnic minorities and the Montenegrin diaspora during the final days on the campaign trail.

"We don't want to depend either politically, economically or in any other way on other countries. Djukanovic can secure that," retired teacher Kata Lekovic, 72, told AFP in Podgorica.

For years, Djukanovic has sought to bridle the influence of Belgrade and the Serbian Church in Montenegro, while carving out a separate Montenegrin national identity.

But it has been no easy task, with roughly a third of Montenegro's population of 620,000 identifying as Serbs.

Milatovic will be hoping to capture the eagerness of young voters looking for an injection of fresh faces into the country's leadership.

Milatovic made political headlines as minister of economic development after the 2020 parliamentary elections, which resulted in the first government not ruled by the DPS.

The father-of-three made his mark with a controversial economic programme that, among other things, doubled the minimum wage.

Still, the minimum wage is just 450 euros ($490) per month in the tiny country, which remains heavily reliant on tourism thanks to its picturesque beaches along the Adriatic and its rugged mountains.

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