Analysts predict the presidential election will not produce a clear winner and incumbent Milo Djukanovic, 61, will face one of several challengers in a runoff in two weeks’ time.
Although the presidency is largely ceremonial in Montenegro, the vote is seen as a key indicator of popular sentiment ahead of early parliamentary elections scheduled for June 11.
Djukanovic’s opponents include Andrija Mandic, leader of the staunchly pro-Serbia and pro-Russia Popular Front party, economist Jakov Milatovic of the newly formed Europe Now group and former parliament speaker Aleksa Becic.
Observers say Milatovic, who served in the government elected after the 2020 parliamentary vote but later split from the ruling coalition, may have the best chance of reaching the runoff.
Djukanovic and his Democratic Party of Socialists led Montenegro to independence from Serbia in 2006 and challenged Russia to join NATO in 2017. An alliance dominated by parties seeking closer ties with Serbia and Russia toppled the DPS in 2020.
However, the new ruling alliance soon descended into chaos, halting Montenegro’s path towards the EU and creating a political stalemate. The last government fell in a vote of no confidence in August, but has been in office for months due to deadlock.
Djukanovic, who has served as president and prime minister several times in the past 30 years, has seen his popularity plummet after the ouster of the DPS-dominated coalition. He now hopes to restore trust among Montenegro’s 540,000 eligible voters and help pave the way for his party’s return to power.
He has portrayed the presidential election as a choice between an independent Montenegro and a country controlled by neighboring Serbia and Russia.
He told his supporters: “Only a few years ago, no one could have imagined that we would once again fight 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 irresponsibly closed.”
Political chaos and stalled reforms in a country long considered next in line for entry into the European Union have alarmed US and EU officials, who fear Russia is trying to stir up trouble in the countries. Balkans to divert attention from the war in Ukraine.
Montenegro’s 620,000 citizens remain deeply divided between supporters of Djukanovic’s policies and those who see themselves as Serbs and want Montenegro to ally with Serbia and fellow Slavic Russia.
Mandic of the Popular Front party, who was accused of being part of a Russian-orchestrated coup attempt in 2016, has tried to present himself as a conciliatory figure during the campaign, saying his main goal as president would be to bridge the Montenegrin divide. .
Milatovic, the economist, accused Djukanovic and his party of corruption and said the final removal of the president from power is necessary for Montenegro to move forward.