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Pro-EU group projected to win Montenegro snap parliamentary election

A man walks past a pre-election billboard showing leader of the Europe Now movement, financial expert Milojko Spajic in Podgorica, Montenegro, Friday, June 9, 2023. 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. (AP Photo/Risto Bozovic)

PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — A recently formed centrist group that advocates Montenegro joining the European Union was projected to win the small Balkan country’s early parliamentary election Sunday, but without enough support to form a government on its own, according to independent vote monitors.

The Center for Democratic Transition pollsters group said that based on all of the votes counted, the Europe Now movement won 26% percent of the vote, while the coalition led by the Democratic Party of Socialists of former President Milo Djukanovic got 23%.

The unofficial results were based on pollster projections and on results from representative samples from individual polling stations. The state election commission is to announce the official election results in coming days.

The vote Sunday was expected to put an end to deep political divisions and years of instability that have hampered the small NATO-member country on its route to joining the European Union.

But, the political instability is likely continue, with no clear winner and difficult coalition talks ahead.

“Tomorrow is a new day,” said Milojko Spajic, a leader of the Europe Now movement. “We are not going to be arrogant, and we will sit down with anyone who shares our values. We will obviously form a new pro-European government.”

Some 542,000 voters were 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.

As the polls closed, the turnout was just over 56% — the lowest in Montenegro since it split from Serbia to become an independent state in 2006. Analysts say turnout was low because many voters are fed up with frequent elections that produced no major changes on the local political scene.

Unlike in the previous elections, when campaigning focused on whether the country should be leaning toward the EU or closer to Russia and Serbia, the economy and living standards dominated this time.

“Finally, we are deciding on the quality of life, rather than on the East or West,” Tanja Bojovic, 38, said as she cast her ballot in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica. “I expect the victory of those who will lead us to a better life.”

The election is Montenegro’s first in more than 30 years that does not feature 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 national politics.

President Jakov Milatovic, who belongs to the Europe Now movement, said he hoped that “following the parliamentary elections, the new Assembly of Montenegro will reflect what is currently a new political reality in the country.”

The Democratic Party of Socialists, the party formerly led by Djukanovic, has experienced a decline in popularity after three decades of dominance and has new leadership that was looking for a chance to make a comeback.

The pro-Serb coalition For the Future of Montenegro has emerged as a kingmaker in the formation of a future coalition government by winning some 15% of the vote Sunday, according to the independent pollsters.

Political analyst Ana Nenezic, executive director of the Centre for Monitoring and Research, said the focus on the economy “is beneficial for society” but politicians’ promises of salary hikes “are not based on a real economy.”

She added that based on the latest election forecasts, “I will be really surprised if we get a politically stable government.”

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 the Democratic Party of Socialists from power in the previous parliamentary elections, held in 2020.

The new ruling coalition, 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 remained in office for months because of the stalemate.

Montenegro, a picturesque Adriatic Sea country of about 620,000 people, was once viewed as the country first in line to join the EU from the Western Balkans.