Montenegro to elect president in tight race after year of deadlock

Photo: PAP

Montenegro holds a run-off presidential election on Sunday in which long-time incumbent Milo Đukanović faces a strong challenge from a Western-educated economist who has promised a fresh start after a year of political deadlock.

Đukanović , 61, has dominated Montenegro as president or prime minister for 33 years, since the start of old federal Yugoslavia's disintegration, and opponents have long accused the former communist and his party of running the small Adriatic republic as their fiefdom, allegations they deny.

His rival in Sunday's second-round election is Jakov Milatović, 37, a former economy minister and the deputy head of the Europe Now movement who advocates closer ties with both the European Union and fellow ex-Yugoslav republic Serbia.

Đukanović wound up with 35.37 percent of the vote in the first round of the election on March 19, with Milatovic on 28.92 percent, necessitating a run-off as neither garnered a 50 percent majority.

Analysts said the results herald a closely fought run-off.

Đukanović will be dependent on the traditional support of national minorities, Montenegrins living abroad, pro-Western parties and those who abstained in the first round.

Milatović counted on backing from the pro-Serb and pro-Russian Democratic Front and its leader Andrija Mandić, who on March 19 secured 19.3percent, but also from other smaller parties including the now-ruling URA, a pro-Western group.

Đukanović has led Montenegro since the collapse of old Yugoslavia, initially as an ally of the thenSerbian nationalist strongman Slobodan Milošević, before parting ways with him and adopting a pro-Western agenda.

Montenegro, whose economy relies on tourism generated by its scenic mountains and seaside, ditched a state union with much larger Serbia in 2006 and declared independence. It joined NATO in 2017 and is now a candidate for European Union membership.

Đukanović campaigned for continuity. "We want to continue to live as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural, civic state ... that wants to be a member of the EU," he said.

But analysts said he faced a serious challenge in Sunday's vote after a year of political instability that saw two governments felled by no-confidence votes prompted by perceived mishandling of the COVID pandemic, economic mismanagement and a disputed deal regulating ties with the Serbian Orthodox Church.

A row between lawmakers and Đukanović over his refusal to name a new prime minister deepened the political paralysis.

Parliamentary election in June

On March 16 Đukanović dissolved parliament and scheduled snap elections for June 11.

Although the presidency is largely ceremonial, it holds key powers to nominate prime ministers, dissolve parliament and call elections, and whoever wins the presidential vote will bolster the chances of his party in June.

Montenegro has a legacy of bitter divisions between those who identify as Montenegrins and those who see themselves as Serbs and are opposed to the country's independence.

The country joined NATO after a 2016 coup attempt that the Đukanović government blamed on Russian agents and Serbian nationalists. Moscow dismissed such accusations as absurd, and Serbia denied involvement.

After the invasion of Ukraine last year, Montenegro signed up to EU sanctions against Russia. The Kremlin has placed Montenegro on its list of unfriendly states.