The FINANCIAL — Montenegro voted Sunday to choose a government that will lead EU entry talks for the Balkans country with the ruling centre-left coalition predicted to win despite the worsening economy.
Latest opinion polls show that the ruling centre-left coalition is heading for its third win in as many elections since Montenegro's independence from decades-long partner Serbia in 2006.
The government had called early elections in a bid to capitalise on the European Union's decision to open accession talks with Podgorica in June.
Surveys give the ruling European Montenegro coalition led by veteran politician Milo Djukanovic about 47 percent of the vote while all opposition parties combined are expected to get some 40 percent.
After voting in Podgorica on Sunday, Djukanovic said he expected voters to keep their own interests at heart by "keeping stability in Montenegro and boosting economic development … and continuing the road towards European and NATO integration".
During the campaign, he has hit out at the opposition which he accused of undermining Montenegro's independence by seeking closer ties with Serbia.
Djukanovic is the only leader in the volatile Balkans whose party has survived and won every election since the start of the bloody 1990s wars. As EUbusiness announced, since independence he has served twice as prime minister and was president from 1998 to 2002.
For economist Slavica Petrovic, Djukanovic's coalition was the only choice as the divided opposition parties offered no real alternative.
"It is better to have confidence in those already trying to find a solution for the problems," she said, adding that the centre-left government "is doing the best it can in grave crisis conditions".
But the largest opposition bloc, the Democratic Front, led by former foreign minister Miodrag Lekic, has in its campaign underlined the ruling party's weaknesses: an unemployment rate of 20 percent and ongoing claims of government corruption.
"We need to change the air in Montenegro. The same people have been at the same positions with cosmetic changes at the top of the ladder," IT expert Milos Asanovic told AFP, explaining why he voted for the opposition.
"Corruption is a widespread phenomenon and I have the impression that now because there is no money it is getting worse and worse," he said.
Independent election monitor CEMI said that turnout at 1 pm (1100 GMT) was 33.3 percent, some 3 percent higher than during the last elections in 2009 when overall turnout was over 60 percent.
Around 514,000 people are eligible to vote for the 81 members of parliament from the 13 parties contesting the elections.
In its annual progress report, the European Commission noted that Montenegro, which has some 625,000 inhabitants, has implemented key economic reforms, but said it should make more efforts to uphold the rule of law and fight organised crime and corruption.
Montenegro's economy grew by 2.7 percent in 2011, with the government forecasting an expansion of just 0.5 percent this year. State debt has reached a "worrisome" 58 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), its central bank has said.
Montenegro's relatively undiversified economy relies heavily on foreign investment which drove an economic boom between 2006 and 2008. The average monthly salary is 480 euros ($620).
Of the six former Yugoslav republics only Slovenia is a member of the European Union since 2004 with Croatia set to become the bloc's newest member next year.
Polling stations will close at 8 pm (1800 GMT). Exit polls are expected in the evening and CEMI will deliver an estimate based on a representative sample of voters.
The first official results will be announced Monday by the central election commission.