Podgorica (Montenegro) (AFP) -
Montenegro's incumbent President Milo Djukanovic will face a run-off election against Jakov Milatovic, a young economist from the increasingly popular Europe Now Movement, projections of results released by a local NGO suggested on Sunday.
The election followed months of deadlock after the government was hit with a no-confidence vote in August but continued to rule, kicking off a wave of protests and calls for snap polls for the parliament.
The latter were called for June 11 by Djukanovic on Friday a day after he had dissolved parliament as a three-month deadline expired for the prime minister-designate to form a new government.
Djukanovic, the Adriatic nation's longest serving leader, garnered slightly more than 35 percent of the votes and Milatovic around 29 percent, according to projections released by the CeMI NGO monitoring the polls.
The electoral commission is to announce preliminary results on Monday.
Montenegro's president has a largely ceremonial role, most of the political power resting with the prime minister.
Djukanovic, one of the country's most instrumental figures famed for wielding power and influence since he broke with Serbia and helped oversee Montenegro's independence in 2006, now faces a serious challenge to win his third term as president.
A loss at the polls for Djukanovic and his DPS party would signal the beginning of a new political era as the country pursues European Union membership -- long-sought goal held up by slow progress on reforms to tackle endemic corruption.
- 'Deeply disappointed' -
After he voted in the capital Podgorica, 61-year-old Djukanovic told reporters he was confident of winning.
The elections were an 'opportunity for Montenegro to confirm its capability of living in political and social stability... and reaching its goal of becoming part of the family of European states and people', he said.
Milatovic, who he faces in the second round on April 2, underlined the importance of the vote.
'People are choosing today between the policies of the past, poverty, divisions, and a Montenegro of the future, development,' said the 37-year-old Milatovic, who served as independent economy minister from 2020 to 2022.
Under the leadership of Djukanovic and his party, Montenegro joined NATO, kick-started the negotiating process for EU membership and moved away from Russia's influence.
However, his party's rule has been plagued by allegations of widespread corruption and links to organised crime, which Djukanovic strongly denies.
Since the 2020 parliamentary elections -- which saw DPS's grip on power weaken after taking a beating at the polls -- the country has pivoted from crisis to crisis.
The prolonged political dysfunction has left many in the country of 620,000 people disillusioned with the upcoming election.
Bojan, a pensioner who did not want to give his family name, said he would not vote as he was 'deeply disappointed' by the choice of candidates.
Another voter, Ivan Ivanovic, did expect 'some changes' but told AFP it remained to be seen 'whether they will be good for people ... or will they (politicians) stop at empty promises again, like in every election year'.