Montenegro’s ruling party declared victory in parliamentary elections Sunday, but monitors said opposition forces who vowed to unite against its leader, President Milo Djukanovic, looked to have won a majority.
The tight contest made it unclear who will lead the next government in a country that’s embroiled in the battle for influence in the Balkans between the European Union and NATO on one side and Russia and its allies on the other.
Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists, known as the DPS, won 34.8 percent, the Podgorica-based Center For Monitoring and Research said Sunday after counting votes from 88 percent of a selection of polling stations. An umbrella group of pro-Russian and pro-Serbian parties called For the Future of Montenegro won 32.7 percent, followed by 12.5 percent for an alliance called Peace is Our Nation and 5.7 percent for one known as Black on White.
The tight result means it’s unclear who will lead the next government. The website of the national electoral commission in the capital, Podgorica, stopped refreshing after voting concluded and officials didn’t announce when first partial results would be released.
Despite backing conflicting platforms ranging from the pro-Russian to euroskeptic nationalism to supporting European Union accession, the biggest opposition forces vowed to team up to oust the DPS. They pledged to tackle endemic graft and ditch divisive policies under which Djukanovic has wielded power over the country of 620,000 as either president or premier almost continually since 1991.
"The regime has fallen,” said Zdravko Krivokapic, leader of The Future of Montenegro, after the partial parallel count was published.
Djukanovic’s party also declared victory, with lawmaker Nela Savkovic-Vukcevic telling reporters that it will be able to stay in power by forming a coalition with smaller opposition parties and those representing minorities.
Once an ally of late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, Djukanovic abandoned his patron in 1997 to become a staunchly pro-Western leader before orchestrating a formal split from Serbia in 2006.
His party, former Communists who rebranded themselves after the fall of the Iron Curtain, brought Montenegro into NATO in 2017, a year after foiling a Russian-backed coup attempt he said was aimed at killing him on the same day as parliamentary elections.
Russia opposed Montengro’s NATO entry and has resisted countries from the former communist sphere joining the EU. Among the six western Balkan nations seeking to join the bloc, Montenegro has advanced most on the path to accession and has the highest economic output per capita.
But the popularity of Djukanovic’s party has plunged following months of anti-government protests. They were triggered after the approval of a law on religious groups that may strip the local branch of Serbian Orthodox Church, the nation’s biggest denomination, of assets.
Opposition parties have accused Djukanovic of letting corruption thrive — he has averted a number of investigations, including one over cigarette smuggling from Italy, across the Adriatic sea.
The parallel count projects the top three opposition parties would take as many as a combined 42 of parliament’s 81 seats. Monitors from the Center For Monitoring and Research said that could change as more ballots are counted, though, and it remains to be seen whether they may be able to agree to rule together with their sharply conflicting agendas.
Djukanovic’s party and its likely allies would take 39 seats, too little for a majority but still close enough to create space for maneuver, according to the count.
That will come into play because the DPS was seen winning the most seats, and as president, Djukanovic may grant the government-forming mandate to whichever party he thinks can muster a ruling majority.