The pro-Western Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) of President Milo Djukanovic was narrowly ahead of Montenegro's pro-Serbian and pro-Russian alliance in parliamentary elections Sunday, pollster CEMI said in a preliminary forecast.
On the basis of 89% of ballots from a sample of polling stations, CEMI forecast the DPS secured 34.8% of votes, while the alliance of mainly Serb nationalist parties, For the Future of Montenegro, which wants closer ties with Serbia and Russia, was just behind with 32.7%.
As neither of the two largest contenders will secure the 41 deputies in the 81-seat parliament needed to rule alone, they would need to seek coalition partners.
The Peace is Our Nation, an alliance of centrist parties also opposed to the DPS, came third with 12.5% of the votes, CEMI said. Another alliance led by the green United Reform Action (URA) party received 5.7% of the votes.
The result was a major setback for the DPS, which has been in power for three decades, and Djukanovic, who led the country through the violent collapse of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the dissolution of a state union with Serbia in 2006 and steered it into NATO in 2017.
A pro-Serb government might move the country closer to Serbia and Russia, but it is not expected to lead it out of NATO and to abandon its EU membership bid.
Nela Savkovic, a DPS official, told reporters that the party had secured enough votes to form a coalition with "traditional partners" that include national minorities and some smaller parties.
At the headquarters of the Democratic Front, which is the mainstay of For the Future of Montenegro, the leader of the pro-Serb alliance, Zdravko Krivokapic, claimed victory.
"Dear citizens, we are expressing our gratitude for your perseverance and dignity ... the regime has fallen," Krivokapic, a university professor, told his jubilant backers.
Krivokapic's alliance and the DF are backed by the powerful Serbian Orthodox Church, which holds daily protests against a law adopted last December that allows the state to seize religious assets whose historical ownership cannot be proven.
Politicians from the DF were also implicated in a failed 2016 election day plot staged by Russian agents and a group of Serb nationalists aiming to topple the government, assassinate Djukanovic, who then served as the prime minister, and halt the country's accession to NATO.
Opposition leaders and democracy and rights watchdogs have long accused Djukanovic and his party of running Montenegro for three decades as their own corrupt fiefdom with links to organized crime.
The DPS denies this. Djukanovic, who faces re-election as the country's president in 2023, and his top associates have in turn accused Serbia and Russia of using the Church and the pro-Serb opposition to undermine the independence of the mountainous coastal republic, its NATO membership and its EU membership bid.
Any future government must tackle an economic downturn that started in 2019 and was aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic, which gutted revenues from tourism that is a key driver of the economy.
According to the International Monetary Fund, Montenegro's economy is forecast to contract by nearly 9% this year and recover in 2021.