1680460506 origin 1

Voters in Montenegro choose president amid political turmoil

origin 1Pro-Western incumbent Milo Djukanovic cast his vote at a polling station in Montenegro’s capital Podgorica on Sunday, April 2, 2023. ©Risto Bozovic/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved

Voters in Montenegro cast their votes on Sunday in a presidential election runoff that is a contest between a longtime pro-Western incumbent and a newcomer promising change in the tiny NATO member nation located on Europe’s Balkan peninsula.

Observers think President Milo Djukanovic, who is credited with leading Montenegro to independence from Serbia in 2006 and subsequently NATO, could be defeated by Jakov Milatovic, a former economy minister. Milatovic has the backing of the country’s ruling parties, which advocate closer ties with Serbia.

The runoff was scheduled after neither contender won a majority in the first round of voting two weeks ago. About 540,000 people have the right to vote. Montenegro has a population of 620,000 and borders Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo and the Adriatic Sea.

The result of Sunday’s election is likely to reflect a snap parliamentary election set for June 11. That vote was timed because of a months-long government standoff that stalled Montenegro’s accession to the European Union and alarmed the West as war rages on in Ukraine.

Djukanovic said he was confident of a victory, which according to him will mark “the beginning of Montenegro’s return to the path of European development”. Since 2012, the EU and Montenegro have been negotiating terms that the country must meet to join the bloc.

“I believe that a new era is beginning in which Montenegro will continue to advance efficiently and steadily towards its European goal,” Djukanovic told reporters. “I also believe that we will confirm this intention in the parliamentary elections.”

Milatovic expressed similar optimism, saying he was “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”.

The EU-brokered deal between Serbia and Kosovo is based on a gentleman’s deal
Clash in the Adriatic as pollsters say a young contender could become Montenegro’s new president

He said he will make Montenegro’s progress on the EU path his priority.

“I believe we are entering a new era for Montenegro, an era for a better, fairer, richer and also more democratic Montenegro, a European Montenegro of all and for all its citizens,” Milatovic said.

Djukanovic, 61, became prime minister at the age of 29 and has remained in power for 32 years, longer than his Democratic Socialist Party, which was ousted from government in the 2020 parliamentary election.

Djukanovic hopes his re-election for another five-year term paves the way for the party’s return to power in June.

Djukanovic has been a key Western ally in countering Russian influence and keeping the Balkans stable. He insisted that the fight is not over despite Montenegro joining NATO due to Serbia’s alleged expansionist policies and Russia’s influence.

Milatovic, 36, studied in the UK and the US. He appealed to voters disappointed by established politicians like Djukanovic. Milatovic insisted that he wants Montenegro to join the EU, although some of the parties that backed his candidacy are pro-Russian.

If Milatovic wins, his Europe Now movement could find itself in a position to dominate the next government after the parliamentary elections in June.

Europe Now emerged after the collapse of the first government following the 2020 parliamentary elections. As economy minister in that government, Milatovic gained popularity by raising salaries, but critics say this was done at the expense of an already depleted health system and not as a result of the reform.