By Petar Komnenic
PODGORICA, Montenegro (Reuters) - Both sides claimed victory in Montenegro's presidential election on Sunday, raising the prospect of a dispute over the largely ceremonial post in the tiny Adriatic country as it bids to join the European Union.
Based on his camp's own vote-count, incumbent Filip Vujanovic said he had won 51.3 percent of votes compared to 48.7 for opposition challenger Miodrag Lekic, a former diplomat.
"This is the winning result," Vujanovic said in a televised address.
There was no official word from the state electoral commission and official results were expected overnight. The opposition Democratic Front said Lekic, who compared Vujanovic's victory claim to a "coup d'etat" was ahead according to its own count, with 50.5 percent compared to 49.5.
The prime minister controls the government in Montenegro, with the president largely a figurehead. But a Lekic victory would set up an awkward cohabitation and deal a significant blow to the popularity of the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) after more than two decades in power.
Vujanovic was bidding for a third term as president of the former Yugoslav republic of some 680,000 people which last year began talks on joining the European Union.
Vujanovic and the DPS have been in power since federal Yugoslavia began unravelling in the early 1990s. They led Montenegro to independence in 2006 when it narrowly voted in a referendum to end an 88-year union with Serbia.
The opposition accuses the DPS of monopolising power in the interests of a corrupt elite, with Montenegro struggling for years to shake off a reputation for rampant graft and organised crime.
Lekic said he was the rightful winner of the election.
"I can announce that the people of Montenegro have entrusted me with the post of president," he said in a televised address.
STATEHOOD ISSUE DIVIDES VOTERS
Analysts say an economic downturn triggered by falling foreign investment, and the opposition accusations of corruption, have eaten into support for the DPS, which was re-elected in a parliamentary election in October but without an outright majority.
"We need change," said Ivan Bulatovic, 35, a salesman who voted early in Podgorica and backed Lekic.
"We need someone to challenge these guys who have been in power for the last 25 years. We need someone new who's going to rise up against corruption, to speak out against authorities that brought us only hunger."
Montenegro is next in line for EU membership behind fellow former Yugoslav republic Croatia, which joins in July. Serbia is a candidate for membership but has yet to begin talks.
Vujanovic had led in opinion polls before the vote, with Lekic struggling to deflect accusations from the DPS that he is weak on the issue of Montenegrin statehood.
Lekic, 65, is backed by a number of small parties that campaigned against voiding the union with Serbia.
The DPS denies that Montenegro is any worse than the rest of the Balkan region in terms of graft and organised crime.
Seven years since Montenegro split from Serbia, elections continue to be decided largely on the issue of statehood. The DPS has warned voters that Lekic and the opposition cannot be trusted to strengthen Montenegrin sovereignty.
"Vujanovic is an honest man," said Miljan Nestorovic, a 44-year-old economist. "He was part of the crew that brought back our independence. He's a guarantee of political stability and I trust him."
(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Jason Webb)