Montenegro is girding for a closely watched presidential run-off on Sunday, when a young upstart could upend the Balkan nation’s political landscape, dominated for decades by incumbent Milo Djukanovic.
The outcome of the race will likely determine the balance of power ahead of a snap parliamentary vote due in June, following months of deadlock after the government collapsed in August.
The election comes two weeks after the first round, where Djukanovic fended off a range of rivals hoping to shake up the political scene, garnering 35 percent of the vote compared to 29 percent for his main challenger, Jakov Milatovic.
However, analysts have largely tipped Milatovic to win the presidency, saying the pro-European economist is likely to appeal to a large number of voters desperate for change after decades of rule by Djukanovic and his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS).
“The fall of Djukanovic would probably mean the fall of the DPS as we know it, which had absolute power in Montenegro,” Predrag Zenovic, a political analyst based in the capital Podgorica, told AFP.
The DPS has been on the back foot since the party suffered a historic defeat in the 2020 parliamentary elections.
Since then Montenegro has lurched from crisis to crisis that has seen the collapse of two governments.
Djukanovic, 61, was installed at the helm of the former Yugoslav republic in 1991 by former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic when he was just 29.
But as Serbia increasingly became an international pariah, Djukanovic pivoted West, broke ties with Belgrade and helped oversee Montenegro’s independence in 2006.
Under the leadership of Djukanovic and his party, Montenegro joined NATO, kick-started the negotiating process for EU membership and moved away from Russia’s influence.
However, his party’s rule has been plagued by allegations of widespread corruption and links to organised crime, which Djukanovic denies.
“We have a man in power here for 30 years who is the epitome of dictatorship, abuse of power, who made it possible for corruption and criminality to flourish,” Mladen Vukovic, a doctor in Podgorica, told AFP.
For him, Sunday’s vote is the “last chance to remove such a man from power and for someone new to come”.
Ahead of Sunday’s vote, Djukanovic has repeatedly questioned whether Milatovic, 36, and his Europe Now party are able to secure a European future for Montenegro, while accusing him of being vulnerable to Serbian influence.
“I cannot support Milatovic and the Europe Now movement since I’m afraid that it will allow too much influence from Serbia,” said Zorica, a 39-year-old economist in Podgorica, who declined to provide her surname.
“Milatovic is too ambitious and too young and I don’t trust that he will have the political skills to resist the influence of Serbia” and the Serbian Orthodox Church, she said.
For years, Djukanovic has been eager to curb the influence of Belgrade and the Serbian church in Montenegro, while helping cement a separate Montenegrin national identity.
But it has been no easy task, with a third of Montenegro’s population of 620,000 identifying as Serbs.
Milatovic will likely be looking to harness the eagerness of young voters looking for an injection of fresh faces into the country’s leadership.
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.
The father-of-three gained popularity with a controversial economic programme that, among other things, doubled the minimum wage.
For Podgorica resident Milena Sekulic, 31, the election will be about fomenting change and creating better economic conditions in Montenegro, where many young people flock abroad in the thousands for better opportunities.
“To get a job, political affiliation is more important than professionalism,” she told AFP.
The minimum wage is just 450 euros ($490) a month in the tiny country along the Adriatic, which remains heavily reliant on tourism thanks to its picturesque beaches and rugged mountains.
Montenegro’s president, elected for a five-year term, has a largely ceremonial role while most of the political power rests with the prime minister.