PODGORICA Montenegro's ruling party hopes to extend its 23-year hold on power in a parliamentary election that began on Sunday and win a mandate to lead the ex-Yugoslav republic in talks on joining the European Union.
Despite economic stagnation and accusations of high-level corruption, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) remains popular for having championed the independence of the country of 680,000 people six years ago.
Victory for the party could also mean the return to power of its leader, 50-year old Milo Djukanovic, prime minister or president for all but two years in the last two decades.
"They are more experienced and more serious than others and I hope they will bring us prosperity," said retired Dimitrije Mitrovic, 62, who voted for the DPS.
Opinion polls indicate an alliance dominated by the DPS is likely to win 47 percent of the vote compared to 24 percent for its nearest rival, the Democratic Front opposition alliance. Its credentials have been further bolstered by the EU decision to open accession talks in June.
The only question was whether the ruling party would need the support of parliamentary deputies from ethnic minority parties, said Zlatko Vujovic of CEMI, a non-government group that will monitor the ballot.
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," office clerk Slavko Zivkovic, 50, an opposition supporter said after casting his ballot at a polling station in a school in downtown Podgorica.
Djukanovic's campaign was based on the message that an opposition victory could endanger the independence which Montenegro won in 2006 from much bigger neighbour Serbia. The struggling economy did not really feature in the campaign.
Although the opposition favours closer ties with Serbia, it does not want to reverse independence. It also seeks to bring Montenegro into the European Union, but unlike the ruling party, it is less clear that it would want NATO membership.
Led by Miodrag Lekic, a former Yugoslav ambassador to Rome under late strongman Slobodan Milosevic, the Democratic Front has campaigned largely on an anti-corruption platform.
Djukanovic stepped down as prime minister in 2010, to be replaced by hand-picked successor Igor Luksic, but has remained influential.
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 aluminium plant as well as the euro zone crisis. Per capita 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.
Smaller opposition blocs, including the Socialist People's Party and the Positive Montenegro alliance, could play a role in forming a future government if neither of the biggest parties wins enough votes.
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.
(Writing by Zoran Radosavljevic; Editing by Pravin Char)