Montenegro holds Presidential elections Montenegro holds Presidential elections  (ANSA)

Montenegro's leader wins first round of presidential poll amid turmoil

Montenegro's long-serving incumbent will face a political newcomer in a runoff presidential election next month amid political turmoil. No one won in the first round of voting on Sunday at a time of uncertainty over the future direction of the small Balkan nation.

By Stefan J. Bos

First projections show that Montenegro's President Milo Đjukanovic, who is 61, won around 35 percent of the votes in Sunday's presidential election.

His 37-year-old main rival, economist Jakov Milatovic received about 29 percent, not enough to win outright.

Both men will now meet each other in the April 2 runoff vote after another pro-Russian opponent did not receive enough ballots.

"I am the best to represent the multi-ethnic and European Montenegro," Djukanovic said after an exit poll gave him more than a third of the votes. "And I believe I can reach that goal," he added.

While the presidency is mainly ceremonial, the vote for the head of state indicates the country's future direction.  

Djukanovic called the outcome a "wind in the back" for his Democratic Party of Socialists or DPS ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections set for June 11.

However, his rival Milatovic, the increasingly popular Europe Now Movement, is also seen as pro-Western. He wants to send Djukanovic into retirement as he served as president or prime minister for 33 years.

Djukanovic led Montenegro to independence from Serbia in 2006 and defied Russia to join the NATO military alliance in 2017.

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An alliance dominated by parties seeking closer ties with Serbia and Russia ousted his DPS from power in 2020, accusing the party of corruption and links to organized crime.

The new ruling alliance, however, soon plunged into disarray, complicating Montenegro's path toward European Union membership.

The latest government fell in a no-confidence vote in August but has remained in office for months because of the stalemate.

Montenegro, whose population is around 620,000, has long been split between supporters of Đukanović's policies and those who want Montenegro to ally itself with nearby Serbia and fellow-Slavic Russia.

These tensions have alarmed U.S. and EU officials, who fear Russia could try to stir trouble in the Balkans to divert attention from the war in Ukraine.

The country, which mainly relies on revenue from its Adriatic tourism, joined the NATO military alliance in 2017 following a botched coup attempt a year earlier. The government blamed the attempted government takeover on Russian agents and Serbian nationalists. But Moscow has dismissed such claims as "absurd."

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20 March 2023, 16:03