Formal results confirm Milatovic win in Montenegro election

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Jakov Milatovic, center left, leader of the Europe Now movement celebrates in his headquarters in Montenegro's capital Podgorica, Sunday, April 2, 2023. Milatovic, an economy expert and political novice, won the presidential runoff election 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.(AP Photo/Risto Bozovic)

PODGORICA – Official results released Thursday confirmed a crushing defeat for Montenegro’s long-time leader Milo Djukanovic in a weekend presidential election, signaling his departure from the small Balkan state’s political scene after more than 30 years in power.

Economic expert Jakov Milatovic, a political novice, won Sunday's presidential runoff with around 59% of the vote, according to the final official results.

Djukanovic led Montenegro to independence from much larger Serbia in 2006 and to NATO membership in 2017.

Milatovic’s victory reflected voter fatigue with Djukanovic — who has served as president twice and prime minister seven times — as well as disillusionment with established politicians. Although the presidency is largely a ceremonial position in Montenegro, it influences the political trends in the country.

Djukanovic tendered his resignation as president of Montenegro's largest party, the centrist Democratic Party of Socialists. The party, which Djukanovic led for 25 years, on Thursday named an interim leader.

Djukanovic told a party meeting that he would stay on as a member. He said the party's election performance was "unsatisfactory" but not so low given what he called “the influence of certain factors from outside Montenegro" - a reference to negative propaganda against him from Serbia and the Serbian Orthodox Church during campaigning.

This was Djukanovic’s first loss in an election since he entered politics in the former Yugoslav republic in the early 1990s. During his decades in power, the 61-year-old switched from being a pro-Serbian communist to a pro-Western politician.

Milatovic, 36, first entered politics in 2020 after finishing his education in Britain and the United States.

The outcome of Sunday’s election is likely to impact on an early parliamentary vote set for June 11. That vote was scheduled because of a monthslong 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 isn’t formally part of the country’s ruling coalition, his presidential candidacy won backing from the shaky alliance that includes parties advocating closer ties with neighboring Serbia as well as Russia.

Milatovic has denied Djukanovic’s allegations that the governing coalition is pushing Montenegro back under Serbian and Russian influence.

Since the election, Milatovic has pledged to keep the country on course for EU membership strengthen NATO ties and adhere to international sanctions against Russia for its aggression in Ukraine. Those positions have angered Serbian nationalists who had hoped he would turn away from Djukanovic’s pro-Western policies and align the small Balkan state with Serbia and Russia.