Montenegro on Sunday holds its first presidential election since it gained independence two years ago, with the incumbent Filip Vujanovic expecting a first-round win. ( dpa )
His challengers from the fragmented opposition, Andrija Mandic, Nebojsa Medojevic and Srdjan Milic, insist that there will be a run- off with a possible turnaround, though surveys indicated otherwise.
The Podgorica-based Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (CEDEM) last week predicted that Vujanovic would sweep the vote with 52.8 per cent of the votes cast.
The possibility that he would fall short of the 50 per cent needed for a straight triumph is very slight, CEDEM analyst Milos Besic said in an interview.
The poll, conducted in March, became one of the most hotly contested issues in itself, with Vujanovic's rivals accusing CEDEM of rigging the poll on orders from Vujanovic's and Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic's Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS).
CEDEM had tipped that the Serbian List runner Mandic would come in second, with 19.1 per cent, ahead of the Movement for Change and Socialist People's Party candidates, Medojevic and Milic, with 18.3 and 9.8 per cent, respectively.
Mandic, Milic and particularly Medojevic have alleged that CEDEM was corrupt - which Besic dismissed, saying that the survey was based on "cruel mathematics." He also predicted a high turnout of almost 75 per cent.
All of the runners say they want Montenegro to join the European Union quickly, and all but Mandic want the country in NATO, as well.
Representing Serbs in Montenegro, Mandic opposes NATO in protest at its role in the secession of Kosovo from Serbia and says Montenegro should hold a referendum on membership.
Come Sunday, if Vujanovic wins more than 50 per cent of the ballots cast, he would immediately secure another five-year term in the office. In case nobody claims more than half of the votes cast, the two top finishers would go to a run-off two weeks later.
Though the challengers all brand Djukanovic's regime as corrupt and autocratic, and describe the loyal Vujanovic as "chair holder," they failed to agree on a single candidate who could have more seriously tested Vujanovic.
Medojevic, who ranked as the top challenger until the latest survey, already said that he would back Mandic in case he pushes through to the run-off against Vujanovic, who radiated confidence that as in 2003 he would finish the race in the first round.
The office of the president in Montenegro is largely ceremonial, but the election is a good opportunity for Djukanovic and the DPS to reassert the authority shaken since the triumph in the late 2006 parliamentary poll.
Djukanovic had retired from all government posts then, but the crumbling popularity and internal strife in his party forced him to return in February, after his heir-apparent Zeljko Sturanovic stepped down to seek cancer treatment.
Without many options regarding the path of Montenegro, the runners focused on the real issues, such as the status of reforms, corruption and crime in the country, but also on much mud-slinging, observers said.
"Medojevic, Mandic and Vujanovic have been coming forward with allegations without backing them with evidence," the Centre for Democratic Transition (CDT) spokeswoman Milica Kovacevic recently told a press conference.
CDT also warned Vujanovic that, as president, he has been spending too much time and state resources on campaigning.
Podgorica has invited the Council of Europe, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, EU and other organizations to observe the election.
The smallest of the former Yugoslav republics, Montenegro and its 650,000 inhabitants were also the last to divorce Serbia, following a referendum on independence pushed through by Djukanovic in May 2006.