Voters in Montenegro cast ballots Sunday in a runoff presidential election that is a contest between a long-serving pro-Western incumbent and a newcomer promising changes in the small 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 later into NATO, could be defeated by Jakov Milatovic, a former economy minister. Milatovic has the backing of the country’s governing parties, which advocate closer ties with Serbia.

The runoff vote was scheduled after none of the contenders won a majority in the first round of voting two weeks ago. Some 540,000 people were eligible to vote. Montenegro has a population of 620,000 and borders Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo and the Adriatic Sea.

The outcome of Sunday’s election is likely to reflect on an early parliamentary election set for June 11. That vote was scheduled because of a months-long government deadlock that stalled Montenegro’s pending European Union membership and alarmed the West as war rages in Ukraine.

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

“I believe a new era is starting in which Montenegro will continue to advance efficiently and in a stable manner toward its European goal,” Djukanovic told reporters. “I also believe that we will confirm this intention at the parliamentary election.”

Milatovic expressed just as much 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 to the political past.”

He said he would 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, more just, more wealthy, as well as more democratic Montenegro, a European Montenegro of all and for all its citizens,” Milatovic said.

Djukanovic, 61, first became prime minister at age 29 and has remained in power for 32 years — longer than his Democratic Party of Socialists, which was ousted from governing in a 2020 parliamentary election.

Djukanovic hopes his reelection to another five-year term would pave the way for the party to return to power in June.

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

Milatovic, 36, was educated in the UK and the US. He has appealed to voters disillusioned with established politicians like Djukanovic. Milatovic has insisted 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 June’s parliamentary election.

Europe Now emerged after the first government that resulted from the 2020 parliamentary election collapsed. As the economy minister in that government, Milatovic gained popularity by increasing salaries but critics say this was done at the cost of the already depleted health system and not as an outcome of reform.


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