Montenegro rulers set to keep power in election
PODGORICA (Reuters) - Montenegrins voted in a parliamentary election on Sunday that could extend the 23-year hold on power for the ruling party and its leader, Milo Djukanovic, despite economic stagnation and widespread accusations of high-level corruption.
The winner will oversee the ex-Yugoslav republic's talks on joining the European Union. After Croatia, due to join next July, Montenegro is the only Balkan state that could become an EU member by the end of this decade.
Djukanovic's Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) remains popular despite economic woes for having championed the independence of the country of 680,000 people six years ago from a rump Yugoslavia union with Serbia.
A victory would return to power the 50-year old Djukanovic, prime minister or president for all but two years in the last two decades. Italian prosecutors had accused him of involvement in massive cigarette smuggling during Yugoslavia's international isolation in the 1990s but he was cleared of all charges.
Looking confident and upbeat after casting his ballot in downtown Podgorica, the capital, Djukanovic said he was "calm and optimistic" about the outcome of the election.
"Tomorrow we will talk about who will do what to contribute to the best interest of Montenegro," he told reporters.
He also dismissed the corruption allegations leveled by the opposition: "They have been aiming at the same target for two decades, and every time it ended in a fiasco".
Opinion polls suggest a DPS-dominated alliance was likely to win 47 percent of the vote, versus 24 percent for its nearest rival, the Democratic Front opposition alliance.
The DPS's credentials have been further bolstered by the EU's decision to open accession talks in June.
"They are more experienced and more serious than others and I hope they will bring us prosperity," said retiree Dimitrije Mitrovic, 62, who voted for the DPS.
The only question was whether the ruling party would need the support of parliamentary deputies from ethnic minority parties to form a government, said Zlatko Vujovic of CEMI, a non-government group that will monitor the ballot.
SOME WANT CHANGE AFTER 23 YEARS
While the DPS has been riding high in opinion polls, some Montenegrins said it was time for a change.
"They have been in power for 23 years, this is their private fiefdom, this is not the state of Montenegro anymore," said office clerk Slavko Zivkovic, 50, an opposition supporter, after voting at a polling station in a school in downtown Podgorica.
The CEMI election watchdog put voter turnout by 1100 GMT at 33.4 percent, roughly unchanged from the 2009 vote.
Djukanovic's campaign was based on the message that an opposition victory could endanger the independence which Montenegro won in 2006 from much bigger neighbor Serbia.
Although the struggling economy did not really feature in the campaign, Djukanovic said he would work to improve it.
"Our priorities are higher employment, higher wages and pensions and better health and welfare for our people," he said.
Although the opposition favors closer ties with Serbia, it does not want to reverse independence.
Led by Miodrag Lekic, a former Yugoslav ambassador to Rome under late strongman Slobodan Milosevic, the Democratic Front also seeks to bring Montenegro into the EU. But unlike the ruling party, it is less clear that it would want membership in NATO, the Western military alliance that bombed Milosevic's Yugoslavia in the Kosovo war in 1999.
Djukanovic stepped down as prime minister in 2010, to be replaced by hand-picked successor Igor Luksic, but has remained a paramount powerbroker behind the scenes.
Montenegro's economy flourished after Djukanovic led it away from Serbia thanks to booming tourism and foreign investment on the scenic Adriatic coast.
But this year, the economy is forecast to grow by only 0.5 percent, weighed down by the debts of the state-owned aluminum plant as well as the euro zone crisis. Per capita yearly output is 5,200 euros ($6,700), barely one-fifth the EU average.
Polls will close at 1800 GMT, with first results expected several hours later.
($1 = 0.7712 euros)
(Writing by Zoran Radosavljevic; Editing by Peter Graff)
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