Milo Djukanovic has declared victory in Montenegro's presidential election after preliminary projections showed he won the vote outright and avoided a runoff.
Djukanovic, a six-time prime minister who has been president once before, said his triumph in the April 15 vote was "confirmation of Montenegro's strong determination to continue on the European road."
Speaking to cheering supporters, he called it "another important victory for [Montenegro's] European future."
Citing the Center for Monitoring and Research (CEMI), an independent pollster, news agencies reported that Djukanovic had won around 54 percent of the vote and his main challenger, Mladen Bojanic, around 33 percent.
Bojanic conceded and said that "Montenegro has chosen what it has chosen," although he added that Djukanovic's victory was the result of "blackmail and pressure" and he would continue to "fight to free Montenegro of Djukanovic and his dictatorship."
The vote was seen to be key in determining whether Montenegro remains on a Western course headed toward European Union membership or drifts back into Russia's orbit even though relations have soured recently.
Nongovernmental election monitors reported a number of violations regarding voting procedures, but election authorities said the polls were running smoothly and without major irregularities.
The projected victory for the authoritarian Djukanovic will end his two-year absence from office, a rare gap in almost three decades of involvement in high politics in the tiny country of only about 640,000 people.
Polls before the election had indicated he could win more than half of the votes and avoid a runoff.
Bojanic was supported by most of the country's opposition parties, including pro-Russian groups who want to freeze Montenegro's NATO membership and organize a referendum on the issue if they take power.
None of the other five candidates, including lawmaker Draginja Vuksanovic, the first woman to run for Montenegro's presidency, reached double digits in preelection polling.
Upon voting on April 15, Djukanovic told reporters he was confident of an outright victory.
"I am convinced that Montenegro will confirm that it continues firmly on the path of European development," he said.
Meanwhile, Bojanic described Djukanovic as an "autocrat leading Montenegro into a dictatorship."
A former communist who rose as part of a group of young politicians to prominence in the late 1980s, Djukanovic became Europe's youngest prime minister in 1991 at the age of 29.
Yugoslavia collapsed the same year, but Djukanovic remained a close ally of rump Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic until beginning to cut his own path in 1998, eventually leading Montenegro into independence from Serbia in 2006.
He has since pushed the country through sometimes painful economic times and toward European integration, highlighted by the 2017 accession into NATO.
But it hasn't always been smooth sailing.
Djukanovic, 56, has been dogged by opposition accusations that he fosters cronyism and corruption.
He came under investigation and was indicted by prosecutors in the Italian city of Bari in 2008 for alleged tobacco smuggling. The probe was later dropped given Djukanovic's diplomatic immunity.
"He cannot be the solution because he is the creator of the instability and chaos that we witness in the streets of Montenegro," Bojanic said while campaigning.
"I agree with Djukanovic that the state is stronger than the mafia. But the problem is that I do not know which side he is on."
On the streets of the capital, Podgorica, campaign posters and billboards stare down at voters much the same way the 1.9-meter-tall Djukanovic towers over most of his rivals.
Sasa Petrovic, a 39-year-old farmer, said Djukanovic attracted voters because he touches a nerve with the passion they want in a leader.
Butsome felt that just as it was time for new blood when Djukanovic rose to power, new leadership is now needed in Montenegro.
"I think it's time to make some change. This is not good at all. Great countries change presidents every three to four years, not like this. Not every 30 years!" said Marko Veselinovic, a 44-year-old entrepreneur in Podgorica.