Montenegrins have voted in a presidential election that is widely expected to return incumbent Filip Vujanovic for a third term in office in the tiny Adriatic republic.
Vujanovic, 58, has held the largely ceremonial post since 2003. The country of 680,000 people became independent in 2006 when it narrowly voted to end an 88-year union with Serbia.
His main challenger in Sunday’s poll is Miodrag Lekic, 65, a former diplomat backed by an opposition bloc that accuses the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), of which Vujanovic is a member, of monopolising power in the interests of a corrupt elite.
The former Yugoslav republic is an emerging tourist hotspot, but has for years been dogged by a reputation for corruption and rampant organised crime.
The DPS, led by Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, has been in power since the collapse of federal Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. It was re-elected in an election in October, despite an economic slump triggered by falling foreign investment.
Vujanovic, voting in the capital Podgorica, pledged to help “intensify” Montenegro’s efforts to join the EU in talks that began in mid-2012.
“This is the pre-condition for a better quality of life,” he told reporters.
Montenegro is next in line for EU membership behind fellow former Yugoslav republic Croatia, which joins in July. Serbia is a candidate for membership, but has yet to begin talks.
Vujanovic led in opinion polls with Lekic struggling to deflect accusations from the DPS that he is weak on the issue of Montenegrin statehood. Lekic is backed by a number of small parties that campaigned against voiding the union with Serbia.
Voters swayed on statehood
Lekic complained of “irregularities” that he said had tainted the poll.
“Elections are a moment of truth in democratic countries,” he told reporters after voting. “I wish this would happen for Montenegro.”
An economic downturn and persistent accusations of elitism and corruption saw the DPS fall short of an outright majority in the October parliamentary election, but it formed a government with the help of ethnic minority parties.
Seven years since Montenegro split from Serbia, elections continue to be decided largely on the issue of statehood. The DPS has warned voters that Lekic and the opposition cannot be trusted to strengthen Montenegrin sovereignty.
“Vujanovic is an honest man,” said Miljan Nestorovic, a 44-year-old economist. “He was part of the crew that brought back our independence. He’s a guarantee of political stability and I trust him.”
Ivan Bulatovic, 35, a salesman who voted early in Podgorica and backed Lekic, said, “We need change.
“We need someone to challenge these guys who have been in power for the last 25 years. We need someone new who’s going to rise up against corruption, to speak out against authorities that brought us only hunger.”
Although opinion polls gave Vujanovic a 10 percent lead over Lekic, voter turnout is expected to be far lower than in previous elections.
That is mostly due to apathy and discontent with the slow recovery. About 511,000 people are eligible to vote.
Preliminary election results are expected soon after polls close at 18:00 GMT.
Three hours before the closing of polling stations, turnout was some 49 percent, seven percentage points less than in the October 2012 parliamentary polls, the state electoral commission said.