After two failed presidential ballots in less than six months, voters in Montenegro yesterday finally elected a new president. According to unofficial preliminary results, Filip Vujanovic, the candidate of the ruling coalition and current speaker of parliament, secured an overwhelming victory.
Prague, 12 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- For many, Filip Vujanovic's victory in yesterday's election was a foregone conclusion.
Vujanovic, who was nominated by Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic's Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), was the undisputed frontrunner in December and February presidential ballots. But those elections, boycotted by the opposition pro-Serbia bloc, were invalidated due to low voter turnout.
To avoid another failed election, parliament scrapped the requirement that 50 percent of registered voters turn out for the poll to be declared valid.
According to unofficial preliminary results announced late yesterday, Vujanovic received about 63 percent of the votes to win a five-year presidential term.
Miodrag Zivkovic, the leader of the pro-independence opposition Liberal Alliance, came in second with 31 percent of the vote. The third contender, independent Dragan Hajdukovic, received less than 4 percent. Turnout was 48 percent of Montenegro's 458,000 eligible voters.
Speaking after the unofficial results were made public, Vujanovic pledged to work to bring Montenegro into the European fold. "I will be a president who will lead Montenegro towards Europe," he said. "I will lead it step by step in such a way that we will continue to cooperate with Europe to become members [of Europe] as soon as possible."
Vujanovic, a close ally of pro-independence Prime Minister Djukanovic, becomes Montenegro's first president since Serbia and Montenegro earlier this year agreed to co-exist for three years in a loose union state that replaced the former Yugoslavia. Under Western pressure, Djukanovic shelved earlier plans for immediate independence.
Vujanovic has pledged that in three years he will call a referendum on independence -- after the new joint state has been given a chance to prove its viability.
Zivkovic and Hajdukovic, the other two contenders, also advocate independence. Vujanovic said the surprisingly strong backing for Liberal Zivkovic -- who had been expected to get only around 10 percent of the vote -- showed that support for Montenegro's "European future" is growing.
Zivkovic had previously sharply criticized the ruling coalition for signing the Western-brokered union agreement with Serbia. But seeking to broaden his electoral support among voters who traditionally support close ties with Serbia, he instead focused on criticizing the government for its economic failures and alleged links to organized crime.
Zivkovic had sought to unite all "decent and honest" citizens to get rid of what he alleges is a corrupt government. Conceding defeat yesterday, he said, "I expect that on the platform we put forward -- fighting for a decent Montenegro -- the opposition will find a common interest, and that on the platform we of the Liberal Alliance put forward, we will come to an understanding and move toward bringing down the regime."
Zivkovic also called for a rebuilding of a mid-1990s coalition between the Liberal Alliance and pro-Serbia parties.
The pro-Serbia opposition Socialist People's Party (SNP), the Serbian People's Party (SNS), and the People's Party (NS) failed to nominate a joint candidate for yesterday's ballot. In what looked like a last-minute attempt to put up at least the appearance of a fight, party leaders urged their supporters to back Zivkovic -- despite his pro-independence views. Some voters apparently heeded that advice.
Svetozar Jovicevic is a university professor and a member of the nongovernmental Group for Change. He told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service that he does not expect yesterday's election to move the independence issue forward, which he said he believes will be solved through the evolution of relations between Montenegro and Serbia.
"I do not think that [calling a referendum] will depend on Mr. Vujanovic," Jovicevic said. "That will depend on other circumstances. Let me repeat once again. I, as an expert, have never expected that with such an act the issue of Montenegro's state relations with Serbia will move forward."
Jovicevic said that the president, whose prerogatives under the constitution are mostly representative, should play the role of an integrating factor. But because of party polarization, he doubts that will now be the case.
"I do not expect, unfortunately, that Mr. Vujanovic can play the role of a president who with his initiative, his personal authority, could force both the government and the opposition to quickly solve problems," he said.
With Vujanovic's win, Prime Minister Djukanovic's ruling coalition consolidated its dominating position on the political scene. Yet analysts say the government needs opposition pressure in order to press ahead with lagging reforms and the fight against crime and corruption.
Peter Palmer of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, speaking yesterday in Podgorica, said: "Now it is very important that the government carry out substantial reforms, that's obvious. But the opposition also will have an important task. And I hope that now the opposition will constructively take part in this process so that the people of Montenegro see there is an alternative [to the current state of affairs]."
According to a late-April opinion poll by the Podgorica-based Center for Democracy, more than 47 percent of respondents say they are disappointed with the government's performance -- a sign that tackling real-life problems may have to take precedence over talk of independence.
(RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service contributed to this report.)