Montenegro elects pro-West president Milo Djukanovic, projections show

Supporters of Milo Djukanovic wave Montenegrin flags during his final election rally in Podgorica on April 12. EPA-EFE  BORIS PEJOVIC

Montenegro's former Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic on Sunday claimed victory in the presidential election, according to an NGO monitoring the polls.

"Victory for the European future of Montenegro", said the pro-Western economist who led Montenegro to independence from Serbia in 2016 and into North Atlantic Treaty Organisation a year ago.

Mladen Bojanic, a businessman backed by an alliance of parties, including some wanting closer ties with Russian Federation, was set to come second with 33 percent, according to a projection by the Centre for Monitoring and Research (CeMI) pollster, based on a representative sample of polling stations.

Milo Djukanovic, leader of the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists, DPS, and presidential candidate, is interviewed outside a polling station in Podgorica on April 15.

Djukanovic, the nation's dominating politician, along with his own Democratic Party of Socialists have ruled Montenegro for nearly 30 years.

The 56-year-old is expected to transform the presidency, previously a ceremonial five-year post held by his ally Filip Vujanovic, into the real seat of power in the country of 620,000 people.

The former prime minister and his DPS have ruled the country for almost 30 years.

"I will win today", Djukanovic predicted after voting.

But for the 620,000 people in Montenegro, their votes may have been swayed by what work prospects are offered by the candidates rather than ties to the West or Russian Federation.

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Mr Djukanovic has been accused by the opposition of being linked to the mafia, which he denies.

The country has also been marred by organized crime, with about 20 people killed by assassinations or auto bombs over the last two years.

Challenger Bojanic, who was backed by several opposition groups, including pro-Russian ones, vowed to continue his struggle against Djukanovic, describing him as "the man holding Montenegro and its institutions hostage".

Bojanic conceded defeat, saying: "Montenegro chose the way it chose".

Earlier in the campaign he accused Djukanovic of being "the creator of the instability and chaos that we witness in the streets of Montenegro". "But the problem is that I do not know which side he is on", he added. The results showed that Djukanovic won a large enough percentage to avoid a runoff election.

Low salaries and unemployment at above 20% means the debate over the West versus Russian Federation is not the main concern of many Montenegrins.

For Djukanovic, however, the choice between Brussels and Moscow is crucial to whether Montenegro will "remain on its road of development".

Montenegro, along with Serbia, is the favourite to join the European Union next, possibly as early as 2025.

Turnout at the presidential elections, according to the electoral commission, was 64 percent, meaning that 327,865 people voted.