Montenegro presidential election tests backing for EU membership

PODGORICA — Voting began in Montenegro’s presidential election on Sunday, with pro-European Union membership candidate Milo Djukanovic and his ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) forecast to get slightly more than 50 percent of the votes.

Mladen Bojanic, a businessman backed by an alliance of parties, including some wanting closer ties with Russia, is seen trailing Djukanovic, who has dominated politics either as prime minister or president of the Adriatic country of only 620,000 people, with 30 percent of the votes in opinion polls.

Although the presidential role is largely ceremonial, if Djukanovic wins and replaces his ally Filip Vujanovic, he is expected to wield considerable power and influence policy through the ranks of the DPS.

Montenegro’s last parliamentary vote in 2016 was marred by the arrest of a group of Serb nationalists who had allegedly plotted to assassinate Djukanovic and bring pro-Russian parties to power, to stop the country’s accession to NATO.

However, the DPS and Djukanovic led Montenegro into NATO last year and have pledged to complete talks for EU membership.

Moscow, which opposed Montenegro’s NATO membership bid, has dismissed suggestions that it backed the alleged coup.

More than 530,000 voters will vote in 1,206 polling stations across Montenegro which opened at 0500 GMT and will close at 1800 GMT. If neither presidential candidate gets 50 percent, a second round will be held on April 29.

“I am expecting ... Djukanovic to win,” Zdravko Ivanovic, an 84-year-old pensioner said after casting his vote. “He is the best statesman, the best prime minister and the best and smartest Montenegrin giant.”

Relations between Moscow and Podgorica have soured since 2014 when the ex-Yugoslav republic joined EU sanctions against Russia. And last month Montenegro expelled a Russian diplomat over the poisoning of a former Russian double agent in Britain.

But on Thursday, Djukanovic said he would welcome an improvement of relations with the Kremlin.

He last stepped down as prime minister in 2016, but announced a comeback last month citing “responsibility for Montenegro’s future”.

During the campaign, opposition candidates have accused Djukanovic of fostering cronyism, nepotism, corruption and ties with organized crime, which he denies.

“For so many years we are awaiting changes in Montenegro and I am assuming that will happen today in a democratic way that Montenegro deserves,” Radmila Cagorovic, 66, a retired schoolteacher said after casting her ballot in Podgorica. — Reuters