Milatovic declares victory in Montenegro presidential run-off

Ex-economy minister defeats longstanding incumbent Milo Djukanovic, ending more than three decades of his rule in Montenegro.

Jakov Milatovic
Jakov Milatovic speaks next to his wife, Milena, after the first results of the presidential election were announced, in Podgorica, Montenegro, April 2, 2023 [Marko Djurica/ Reuters]

Montenegro’s former Economy Minister Jakov Milatovic has declared victory in a presidential election run-off, defeating longstanding incumbent Milo Djukanovic, who has ruled the small Balkan country for more than three decades.

Milatovic, who is backed by Montenegro’s governing majority, won about 60 percent in the vote on Sunday while Djukanovic won about 40 percent, according to predictions released by the Centre for Monitoring and Research and based on the vote sample.

Tonight is the night we have been waiting for over 30 years,” Milatovic told cheering supporters of his right-centrist Europe Now Movement at its party headquarters in the capital, Podgorica.

“Within the next five years, we will lead Montenegro into the European Union,” he said.

The 37-year-old had campaigned on pledges to curb corruption, improve living standards and bolster ties with the EU and fellow former Yugoslav republic, Serbia.

In the capital, some of his jubilant supporters drove through the city centre, honking their car horns while others set off fireworks or fired guns into the air.

Djukanovic, 61, who has been a political mainstay in Montenegro for decades, rotating through various positions – including multiple stints as both president and prime minister, acknowledged his defeat to Milatovic.

“Montenegro has made its choice. I respect that choice, and I congratulate Jakov Milatovic,” Djukanovic told his backers at the headquarters of his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) in Podgorica.

The state election commission is expected to announce official results in the coming days, on the completion of complaints procedures.

The run-off came two weeks after the first round, where Djukanovic beat back a range of opponents hoping to shake up the political scene. In that race, Djukanovic garnered 35 percent of the vote compared with 29 percent for Milatovic.

Milo Djukanovic, President of Montenegro, speaking
Milo Djukanovic, president of Montenegro and a candidate from the Democratic Party of Socialists, speaks at his party’s headquarters on the day of the presidential election run-off in Podgorica, Montenegro, on April 2, 2023 [Stevo Vasiljevic/Reuters]

Sunday’s loss represents one of the biggest setbacks for Djukanovic, who is credited with leading his country to independence from Serbia in 2006 and defying Russia to steer Montenegro into NATO in 2017.

But critics say Djukanovic and his DPS have let crime and corruption engulf society.

The president’s loss also follows a year of political instability in which two governments that came to power on the back of 2020 protests supported by the influential Serbian Orthodox Church, were felled by no-confidence votes. It was also marked by a dispute between legislators and Djukanovic over his refusal to name a new prime minister.

Montenegro’s president, elected for a five-year term, has a mostly ceremonial position, and most of the political power resides with the prime minister.

Djukanovic’s defeat will likely weigh heavily on the balance of power in Montenegro ahead of snap parliamentary elections due in June.

“The people have sent a clear message they want changes and that the new political elite should be paying more attention to their [people’s] problems and needs,” said Milos Besic, a lecturer in political science at the University of Belgrade.

In the run-up to Sunday’s vote, Milatovic appeared to capture the eagerness of young voters looking for an injection of fresh faces into the country’s leadership. He was also favoured in surveys.

Milatovic made political headlines as minister of economic development after the 2020 parliamentary elections, which resulted in the first government not ruled by the DPS.

A father of three, he made his mark with a controversial economic programme that, among other things, doubled the minimum wage.

Still, the minimum wage is just 450 euros ($490) a month in the country, which remains heavily reliant on tourism thanks to its picturesque beaches along the Adriatic and its rugged mountains.

The country joined NATO after a 2016 coup attempt that the Djukanovic government blamed on Russian agents and Serbian nationalists. Moscow dismissed such claims as absurd.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, Montenegro joined EU sanctions against Moscow and expelled a number of Russian diplomats. The Kremlin has placed Montenegro on its list of unfriendly states.

Source: News Agencies