Montenegro Votes in Its First Presidential Election

PODGORICA, Montenegro -- Montenegrins were voting Sunday in the tiny Balkan state's first presidential election since it split from Serbia two years ago, with incumbent Filip Vujanovic favored to win.

The ballot will help determine whether the Adriatic Sea nation of 620,000 cements its independence or slides back under Serbia's influence. It is also a test for Montenegro's reformed socialists, who have ruled virtually unchallenged for nearly two decades.

Ethnic Serbs, about 30 percent of the population, are still unhappy about Montenegro's separation from Serbia in a May 2006 referendum. They are seeking closer political and economic ties with Belgrade, which have been chilly since the breakup.

Vujanovic of the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists, and one of the staunchest advocates of Montenegro's split from Serbia, is regarded as the likely winner of the four-man race, according to pre-election surveys.

"These elections will show that a majority of Montenegrins support our policies," Vujanovic said as he cast his ballot. "The presidential hopefuls who were against Montenegro's independence have no moral right to lead the country."

Nebojsa Medojevic of the liberal Movement for Changes, and pro-Serbian challengers Andrija Mandic and Srdjan Milic were likely to split the rest of the votes.

Medojevic, a technocrat, said a victory for him would mean the beginning of the end for the protracted rule of Montenegro's socialists, led by Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, who holds the main power in the country.

"I'm a big optimist that I can win and proclaim the end of the corrupt regime," Medojevic said after he cast his ballot. "Our time has come."

Medojevic claimed that authorities were trying to avoid Vujanovic's defeat by offering money to opposition supporters for their identity cards, which are necessary for casting ballots. He said his wife was "erased" from a ballot list at a polling station in the capital where they have voted since the early 1990s.

"That means they are in panic," Medojevic said.