PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — Economy expert and political novice Jakov Milatovic won the presidential runoff election in Montenegro on Sunday, defeating the pro-Western incumbent who has been in power for more than three decades in the small NATO member nation in Europe, the candidates and polls said.
Milatovic, who is backed by Montenegro’s governing majority, won around 60% in the vote Sunday while Milo Djukanovic won around 40%, according to predictions released by the usually reliable Center for Monitoring and Research and based on vote sample.
In a victory speech, Milatovic described the moment as “historic” and promised to help lead Montenegro into the European Union during his five-year term in office.
“Tonight is the night that we waited for the past 30 years,” said Milatovic, blasting Djukanovic as the “last dictator in Europe.”
“We want to deal with issues that are of vital importance: the rule of law, economy and European integration,” said Milatovic. “We are leaving the past behind and making a decisive step into the future. This is a historic day for us.”
Djukanovic conceded defeat and congratulated Milatovic on his victory. He said he was proud of the result he has achieved after such a long period in power.
“Montenegro has chosen and I respect that choice,” said Djukanovic. “Elections are sometimes won – we won for a very long time – sometimes you lose. I wish the new president that he be worthy of the trust he received.”
The state election authorities on Sunday evening only announced that the turnout was at nearly 70%.
Analysts said the results could change slightly as the vote count progresses but that the gap between the two is too wide for major changes.
“This result is an indicator that the final result won’t be substantially different,” said the group analyst Ana Nenezic.
Milatovic’s victory is believed to reflect voter fatigue with Djukanovic, who has served multiple times as both president and prime minister in the past decades, and disillusionment with established politicians. Milatovic, 36, first entered politics in 2020 after earning his education in Britain and the United States.
Djukanovic is credited with leading his country to independence from Serbia in 2006 and defying Russia to steer Montenegro into NATO in 2017. But critics say Djukanovic and his Democratic Party of Socialists have let crime and corruption engulf society.
The DPS was ousted from power in a 2020 parliamentary vote but Djukanovic has remained in office until his five-year mandate finished. His defeat on Sunday means that both he and his party will be in opposition for the first time since late 1980s’.
Milatovic’s supporters took to the streets of Montenegrin cities as the outcome became clear, staging fireworks, honking car horns as they drove around the streets. Hundreds gathered outside the main church in Podgorica, reflecting ruling coalition’s close ties with the Serbian Orthodox Church and Serbia.
The Serbian Orthodox Church played an important role in a protest movement that eventually resulted in the DPS removal from power in 2020. Many Montenegrins declare themselves as Serbs and they support improving relations with the much larger neighbor.
Sunday’s runoff vote was scheduled after none of the contenders won a majority in the first round of voting two weeks ago. Some 540,000 people were eligible to vote. Montenegro has a population of 620,000 and borders Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo and the Adriatic Sea.
The outcome of Sunday’s election is likely to reflect on an early parliamentary election set for June 11. That vote was scheduled because of a months-long government deadlock that stalled Montenegro’s pending European Union membership and alarmed the West as war rages in Ukraine.
Though Milatovic’s Europe Now group is formally not part of the ruling coalition, his presidential candidacy won backing from the shaky alliance that includes parties that advocate closer ties with neighboring Serbia and Russia.
Milatovic has denied Djukanovic’s allegations that the governing coalition was pushing Montenegro back under Serbia’s influence.
With Milatovic’s triumph, his Europe Now movement could also find itself in a position to dominate the next government after June’s parliamentary election.
Europe Now emerged after the first government that resulted from the 2020 parliamentary election collapsed. As the economy minister in that government, Milatovic gained popularity by increasing salaries but critics say this was done at the cost of the already depleted health system and not as an outcome of reform.