(Podgorica) Montenegrins voted on Sunday to choose their head of state in the second round of a presidential election which pits novice Jakov Milatovic against outgoing Milo Djukanovic, veteran of the political scene of the tiny Balkan country.

The ballot is decisive for the balance of power in this country bordering the Adriatic Sea in the run-up to early legislative elections convened for June 11.

The country has been blocked for months after the August 2022 overthrow of the government, which has however since been managing current affairs.

Polls closed at 2 p.m. EST and unofficial results are expected that evening. As of 12 p.m. EST, turnout was nearly 63%, six points up from the first round two weeks ago.

Milo Djukanovic, who has dominated the country for three decades, then won 35.4% of the vote against 28.9% for Jakov Milatovic.

Analysts, however, believe the 36-year-old pro-European economist is likely to win thanks to a larger pool of votes. He can also count on voters eager for change, who no longer want Milo Djukanovic, 61, or his party, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS).

“I am convinced of my victory,” said Jakov Milatovic while voting. “It will represent the final defeat of the symbol of the old regime” and we will “take a giant step towards a reconciled, richer, fairer Montenegro”.

The DPS suffered a historic defeat in the 2020 legislative elections. Since then, the former Yugoslav Republic has gone from political crisis to political crisis and has suffered the fall of two cabinets.

Milo Djukanovic took over at 29, backed by Belgrade strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

But as Serbia became an outcast on the international stage, he distanced himself. He moved closer to the West, broke with Belgrade and won independence for Montenegro in a referendum in 2006.

Under the aegis of Milo Djukanovic and the DPS, Montenegro joined NATO, became a candidate for the European Union and left the Russian sphere of influence.

After voting on Sunday, he promised to continue on the European path.

“I think a better era is dawning in which Montenegro will continue to advance effectively towards its European goal,” he said.

His critics, however, accuse him of widespread corruption and links to organized crime, which the person concerned strongly denies.

“We have a man who has been in power here for thirty years, who is the epitome of dictatorship, of abuse of power, who made corruption possible, who allowed crime to flourish,” he told AFP Mladen Vukovic, doctor in Podgorica

Milo Djukanovic campaigned questioning the sincerity of his rival’s European roots and his “Europe Now” movement, while accusing him of being vulnerable to Serbian interference.

“Montenegro has always been independent. We don’t want to be dependent on another country, whether politically, economically or otherwise,” said Kata Lekovic, a 72-year-old retired teacher, as she slipped her ballot into the ballot box. “Djukanovic can assure us of that.”

For years, Milo Djukanovic has sought to limit Serbia’s influence and consolidate a national identity separate from Montenegro. A difficult task in a country where a third of the 620,000 inhabitants identify themselves as Serbs.

During the last days of the campaign, he sought to seduce minorities and the diaspora.

Jakov Milatovic, a former member of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), entered politics by becoming Minister of Economic Development in the first government formed after the 2020 legislative elections.

Described as a populist by some, this father of three has made himself particularly appreciated by imposing a controversial economic program which almost doubled the minimum wage to 450 euros.

For many voters, the ballot should lead to better economic conditions in Montenegro which, like the rest of the Balkans, is suffering from the exodus of its youth.

In any case, the president essentially has a representative role and the prime minister holds the main levers of power.