PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — Montenegro is preparing to hold a presidential election this weekend, a vote taking place amid a political stalemate that has stalled the small NATO member’s bid to join the European Union and questions about whether the Balkan country will align more closely with Serbia and Russia.
Analysts predict Sunday’s election will not produce a clear winner and that pro-Western incumbent Milo Djukanovic, 61, will face one of several challengers in a runoff two weeks later.
Djukanovic and his Democratic Party of Socialists led Montenegro to independence from Serbia in 2006, and defied Russia to join NATO in 2017. An alliance dominated by parties seeking closer ties with Serbia and Russia ousted DPS from power in 2020.
The presidency is largely ceremonial in Montenegro but the election result holds political weight because of the country’s political turmoil and the war in Ukraine. It is also crucial for the political future of Djukanovic, the longest-serving politician in the Balkans.
Djukanovic dissolved parliament on Thursday, three months after the government fell in a no-confidence vote. The party whose candidate eventually wins the presidency could receive a significant boost in the early parliamentary election ahead of the early parliamentary election that the president is expected to schedule Friday.
Djukanovic’s opponents on Sunday include a leader of the staunchly pro-Serbia and pro-Russia Popular Front party, Andrija Mandic, economist Jakov Milatovic of the newly-formed Europe Now group and former parliament speaker Aleksa Becic.
Observers say Milatovic, who served in the government formed after the 2020 parliamentary vote but later split from the ruling coalition, may stand the best chance of making it into the runoff against Djukanovic.
Who wins could signal Montenegro’s future direction, said Ana Nenezic, executive director of the Center for Monitoring and Research, a think tank. “That is, whether further foreign policy priorities will be focused on unblocking the process of European integration, strengthening cooperation with EU countries and membership in NATO.”
“The success of the clerical-populist parties, or in this case, the candidates, could lead to strengthening of ties with the Eastern powers and a move away from the European perspective,” she said.
Djukanovic, who has served as Montenegro’s president or prime minister since 1991, saw his popularity plummet after DPS narrowly lost the 2020 parliamentary election. But with the current government in disarray, Djukanovic hopes to regain voter support.
“We decide at the presidential election whether Montenegro will continue to develop as a free, modern, civic European state or, contrary to its centuries-old tradition, will accept to serve the interests of others,” Djukanovic said during campaigning.
The political chaos and stalled reforms in a country long seen as the next in line for European Union membership has 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.
Montenegro’s 620,000 citizens remain deeply divided among supporters of Djukanovic’s policies and those who view themselves as Serbs and want Montenegro to ally itself with Serbia and fellow-Slavic Russia.
The Popular Front party’s Mandic, who was accused of being part of a 2016 coup attempt, has sought 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, has accused Djukanovic and his DPS party of corruption, saying the president’s final removal from power is necessary for Montenegro to move forward.
Montenegro has some 540,000 eligible voters. The country is known for its stunning natural beauty consisting of wild mountains and a popular Adriatic Sea coastline.
Predrag Milic, The Associated Press