Montenegro votes for president to bring it closer to EU

Montenegrins voted Sunday in a presidential election tipped to give incumbent Filip Vujanovic a third mandate that would cement the ruling coalition's grip on power in the economically struggling EU hopeful.

His sole challenger is former foreign minister Miodrag Lekic, who has managed to get the Balkan state's main opposition groups to overcome their bickering and back his candidacy.

The vote for president, a largely ceremonial role in Montenegro, is the country's second since proclaiming independence from Serbia, its decades-long partner, in 2006.

But it is seen as the test for the ruling coalition that has been in power, under the stewardship of Milo Djukanovic, a close ally of Vujanovic, since the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in 1990s.

The 58-year old lawyer has promised to focus on strengthening Montenegro as a "democratic developed country" in order to boost its efforts to join the European Union and NATO.

"I am convinced that support for our politics will be even stronger. ... We will intensify European and Euro-Atlantic integration as they are a necessity for Montenegro," Vujanovic said after casting his ballot in the capital Podgorica.

One pro-Vujanovic voter, 40-year-old businessman Dejan Nuculovic, said he backed the incumbent president because he saw him "as a part of the policy that leads the country to the EU."

Braving an unusually cold and windy day, another voter, Vukasin Bacovic came early to cast his ballot for Lekic, who, he hoped, would "end the corruption that has been ruining Montenegro for years."

"Lekic is a great adversary of corruption. If, God willing, he becomes president, things will improve," the pensioner said.

Brussels opened EU accession talks with Montenegro last June, but the European Commission noted that Podgorica should do more to uphold the rule of law and crack down on organised crime and corruption.

After Croatia, Montenegro is next in line among the ex-Yugoslavia republics to join the 27-nation bloc.

Lekic, 65, has made the fight against corruption and organised crime his priority.

"We live in a mire of hypocrisy and corruption, in a system that humiliates people. Montenegro must get its house in order," Lekic said during the campaign.

"Citizens are longing for changes, and I expect them" if elected, the opposition candidate said after voting.

Djukanovic, a veteran politician and an architect of Montenegro's independence, has himself been accused of corruption but has blasted the claims as "lies".

In 2006 he was named a suspect in an Italian probe into cigarette smuggling and people trafficking that took place during the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

But in May 2009 an Italian court dropped the charges against him.

Experts say that corruption is deeply rooted in the country of 632,000 people struggling with an unemployment rate of 20 percent, and where the average monthly salary is about 480 euros ($615).

Montenegro's relatively undiversified economy relies heavily on foreign investment, which drove an economic boom between 2006 and 2008. Since then, the economy has slid, and public debt has reached 51 percent of gross domestic product.

Both Vujanovic and Lekic have avoided making any promises of leading a fast economic recovery.

Although opinion polls gave Vujanovic a 10 percent lead over Lekic, voter turnout is expected to be only around 40 percent, far lower than in previous elections.

That is mostly due to apathy and discontent with the slow recovery. Some 511,000 people are eligible to vote.

After the first five hours of polling, turnout was some 20 percent, more than ten percentage points less than in the October 2012 parliamentary polls, the state electoral commission said.

Polling stations were due to close at 1800 GMT, with first unofficial results expected by 2200 GMT.