Montenegro voters head to polls with EU talks, economy top issues
(PODGORICA) - Tiny Adriatic republic of Montenegro votes on Sunday with the ruling centre-left coalition poised for victory, promising to achieve EU membership but facing criticism over a stalled economy.
The coalition led by the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) of veteran politician Milo Djukanovic is heading for its third win in as many elections since Montenegro's independence from decades-long partner Serbia in 2006.
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. Since independence he has served twice as prime minister and was president from 1998 to 2002.
The DPS-led coalition sought early parliamentary elections after the European Union opened accession talks in June to secure a "full mandate for important negotiations" with Brussels.
In its annual progress report, the European Commission noted that Montenegro has implemented key economic reforms, but said it should make more efforts in securing the rule of law and fighting against organised crime and corruption.
Djukanovic, 50, has insisted the ruling European Montenegro coalition is "the only protector of the state interests."
"High stakes are at play.... After six years, our statehood is still weak and we have to strengthen it," Djukanovic has said on the campaign trail.
His supporters see him as the only choice for the former Yugoslav republic with a population of some 620,000 people.
"Djukanovic is the only one who can defend the state, and I believe he will bring new investments and thus, new jobs," said Novak Stijovic, a bar owner in the capital Podgorica.
After years of failing to oust the DPS and its allies from power, the opposition is hammering the coalition in its weak spots: an unemployment rate of 20 percent and ongoing claims of corruption.
Opposition leader Miodrag Lekic, a former foreign minister who managed to unite several political groupings in a Democratic Front coalition, accused Djukanovic of running a campaign based on "national divisions... in an attempt to run away from real problems."
But neither the opposition -- accused by Djukanovic of endangering independence with calls for closer ties with Serbia -- nor the ruling coalition are offering solutions to the worsening economic situation in a country where the average monthly salary is 480 euros.
"Montenegro has a problem with a worn-out political class and politicians are incapable of offering solutions," Rade Bojovic, an analyst with pollster CEDEM, told AFP.
Ana Milovic, an economist with a local export-import company, said Montenegrins were "fed up with unfulfilled promises."
"The campaign has been the same for 20 years, like TV re-runs," she said.
And Milan Bulajic, a lawyer from Niksic, once Montenegro's industrial centre, warned that "the campaign is full of malice and hate instead of solutions for the increasing poverty, economic losses and debt."
Montenegro's state debt has reached 58 percent of the gross domestic product, its central bank has said, calling that "worrisome."
Its relatively undiversified economy has relied heavily on foreign investment which drove an economic boom between 2006 and 2008.
But that growth, based mostly on tourism revenue and real estate investment on its Adriatic coast, has stalled. Montenegro's economy grew by 2.7 percent in 2011, with the government forecasting an expansion of just 0.5 percent this year.
Independent economic analyst Mila Kasalica said tax hikes "are certain after the elections as the country needs finances to re-launch the economic cycle and production, pay off debt and satisfy social needs."
Nevertheless, a survey conducted by CEDEM shows Djukanovic's coalition in the lead with 47 percent support, while all opposition parties together are backed by around 40 percent of those polled.
"If the outcome of the election remains like this, Djukanovic has enough room for maneuvering in order to secure a stable political majority," Bojovic predicted.