Podgorica (Montenegro) (AFP) -
Montenegro's veteran ruling party was projected to hold a narrow lead in a tight election Sunday, but could be knocked from power for the first time in three decades if opposition camps unite, unofficial results suggested.
Exit polls put the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) led by President Milo Djukanovic in line for just over a third of the vote share, which would be its worst electoral showing since independence.
If the main pro-Serb opposition teams up with two other rival blocs, they could oust DPS in what would be a political earthquake for the small Adriatic nation of 620,000 people.
The DPS has never lost an election, with Djukanovic leading Montenegro since the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s to independence from Serbia in 2006, and more recently into NATO.
But this year the party faced a stiff challenge from an emboldened right-wing and pro-Serb camp that wants closer links with Belgrade and Moscow.
DPS was set to hold 30 seats in the 81-member assembly, followed by 27 for the pro-Serb 'For the Future of Montenegro' alliance, according to partial results from election monitor CeMI.
Analysts attributed DPS's weak showing to the passing of a law that sparked intense controversy with the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) and has dominated political debate for months.
Passed in late 2019, the religion law opens a path for hundreds of SPC-run monasteries in Montenegro to become state property.
This ignited huge anti-government protests, led by priests and backed by the pro-Serb opposition who accuse Djukanovic of trying to erase their heritage.
While Montenegro declared independence from Serbia in 2006, the SPC remains its largest religious institution and a third of the country's population identify as Serb, making debates around identity highly sensitive.
- 'Regime has fallen' -
Throughout the church row, Djukanovic has sought to present himself as the guardian of Montenegrin nationhood, saying it was threatened by Serb nationalist forces.
Speaking at the party's headquarters late Sunday, he called for the country to wait until official results were announced the following day.
'DPS is the strongest party in Montenegro,' he said, insisting that the party could have a total of 40 seats with traditional allies and that the 'struggle for the majority is still on'.
But Zdravko Krivokapic, the leader of the main pro-Serb alliance, announced triumphantly that 'the regime has fallen'.
Supporters celebrated in the streets of Podgorica, circling with cars, setting off fireworks and gathering in front of the main Orthodox church in the capital.
Leaders of the other main opposition parties were also ecstatic, with Dritan Abazovic from the liberal 'Black on White' party declaring that 'Mafia will no longer rule Montenegro'.
It remains to be seen if the opposition, who range from far-right Serb nationalists to a civic-minded liberal camp, can forge a working alliance.
Djukanovic, who is now serving his second term as president after four stints as premier, will not face election himself until 2023.
While he has won plaudits for making Montenegro a front-runner in the Balkans on its path to joining the EU, Djukanovic's critics accuse him of turning Montenegro into a personal fiefdom built on graft and crime links.
The US-based Freedom House rights group recently downgraded Montenegro from a democracy to a 'hybrid regime' under Djukanovic's 'strongman' rule.