PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — Montenegrins on Sunday are expected to keep the longest-serving government in the Balkans in power for another term despite a battered economy and opposition claims of crime and corruption.
More than half a million voters are choosing between the ruling coalition of Milo Djukanovic and a fractured opposition that has been unable to undermine his influence since he became the youngest prime minister in Europe in 1991 at the age of 29.
Djukanovic's coalition enjoys strong support for orchestrating the tiny country's peaceful 2006 break-up from Serbia and for opening accession talks with the EU this year.
And the opposition appears to have failed to capitalize on the economic troubles that followed a boom in the country first years after independence. The country faces 12 percent unemployment and a monthly a monthly average salary of €480 ($622).
Pre-election surveys predicted Djukanovic's European Montenegro coalition will triumph with some 47 percent of the vote, or nearly half of the seats in the 81-member parliament. The lead opposition Democratic Front is expected to win around 18 percent.
Upon casting his ballot Djukanovic said he was awaiting election results with "optimism and calm." He refused to say whether he would become the prime minister again, after formally handing over the post to a crony in 2010.
Djukanovic has remained the chief of his center-left Democratic Party of Socialists and a power broker behind the scenes.
"I expect the citizens to elect the authorities that will represent their best interests," Djukanovic said. "We need to preserve stability ... that is why this day is so important."
Djukanovic also rejected allegations of crime and corruption, saying "they (opposition) have been shooting the same target for 20 years and every time they end up in a fiasco."
In accusing Djukanovic, his main opponent, Miodrag Lekic has described Montenegro as "a country of captured institutions, where some individual and groups behave as if they were outside of the legal system."
Djukanovic was in the past under investigation by Italian prosecutors who suspected his government of a multi-million-dollar cigarette smuggling operation during international sanctions imposed on Serb-led Yugoslavia its 1990s-era warmongering.
An election monitoring group, Center for Monitoring, said that 33.4 percent of voters cast ballots in the first six hours of voting. Initial, unofficial results are expected few hours after the polls close on Sunday evening.
Jovana Gec contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.