PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — Montenegro is holding an early parliamentary election Sunday, a vote that could provide indications of whether the small NATO member in the Balkans will overcome the deep political divisions and instability that have hampered its route to joining the European Union.
Some 542,000 voters are eligible to choose among 15 parties and coalitions fielding candidates, ranging from groups that are staunchly pro-Western to ones that are pro-Serbian and pro-Russian.
The election will be Montenegro’s first in more than 30 years that does not feature Milo Djukanovic, who served almost continuously as the country’s prime minister or president since 2001. He lost a presidential election in April and has taken a back seat in politics.
Polls and analysts predict that the centrist Europe Now movement, led by financial expert Milojko Spajic and the current president, Jakov Milatovic, is most likely to be the top vote-getter but without enough seats in parliament to form a new government on its own.
Spajic, 37, a former finance minister who in 2021 created economic reforms that included increases in average wages, now promises further salary hikes, as well as a seven-hour working day instead of the current eight hours.
“I am very interested in realizing the plan that I presented to the citizens,” Spajic, who could become the country’s next prime minister, said at one of his pre-election rallies. “I will resign if I fail to realize it.”
The Democratic Party of Socialists, the party formerly led by Djukanovic, experienced a decline in popularity after three decades of dominance and has new leadership looking for a chance to make a comeback.
Party leader Danijel Zivkovic accuses the country’s current government of jeopardizing Montenegro’s EU path and promises to unblock it if DPS returns to power. Montenegro, a picturesque Adriatic Sea country of about 620,000 people, was once considered the first in line to join the EU from the Western Balkans.
Djukanovic led Montenegro to independence from Serbia in 2006 and defied Russia to join NATO in 2017. An alliance dominated by parties seeking closer ties with Serbia and Russia ousted DPS from power in the previous parliamentary elections in 2020.
The new ruling alliance, however, soon plunged into disarray, which stalled Montenegro’s path toward the EU and created a political deadlock. The government fell in a no-confidence vote last year but has remained in office for months because of the stalemate.
The Sunday election will also feature the United Reform Action coalition that includes acting Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic, and a pro-Serbian and Russian coalition called For the Future of Montenegro.
Abazovic, who presented himself as the anti-mafia leader in a country ripe with crime and corruption, also promises several steps for improving voters’ living standards.
“When we defeat the mafia, there will be (money) for everyone,” Abazovic said recently. “We will establish a justice fund, which would return the stolen funds to the budget of the state and all citizens.”
The lukewarm election campaign was shaken this week by Abazovic and Europe Now party leader Spajic trading accusations over South Korean “crypto king” Do Kwon.
Kwon was arrested in Montenegro in March on an international arrest warrant along with another South Korean citizen in connection with a $40 billion crash of his Terraform Labs’ cryptocurrency that devastated retail investors around the world.
Both South Korea and the United States have requested his extradition from Montenegro, where he is on trial for allegedly using a forged passport.
Abazovic has claimed that Spajic had close business contacts with Do Kwon.
Spajic called Abazovic’s allegations “political persecution” and accused him of abusing Montenegro’s institutions while creating an election week controversy “out of fear of losing power.”
Political analyst Daliborka Uljarevic said that such claims and counter-claims proved that the main election issue isn’t joining the EU but “economic populism,” evidenced by most of the parties promising bigger wages.
“That (EU) path has stopped. We are not moving towards the EU. The EU was neither a topic nor a pre-election promise, it was completely lost in that part,” Uljarevic said.