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Montenegro rulers appear set to keep power in election

PODGORICA--Montenegrins voted in a parliamentary election on Sunday that could extend the 23-year hold on power for the ruling party and its leader, Milo Djukanovic, despite economic stagnation and widespread accusations of high-level corruption.

The winner will oversee the ex-Yugoslav republic's talks on joining the European Union. After Croatia, due to join next July, Montenegro is the only Balkan state that could become an EU member by the end of this decade.

Djukanovic's Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) remains popular despite economic woes for having championed the independence of the country of 680,000 people six years ago from a rump Yugoslavia union with Serbia.

A victory would return to power the 50-year-old Djukanovic, prime minister or president for all but two years in the last two decades. Italian prosecutors had accused him of involvement in massive cigarette smuggling during Yugoslavia's international isolation in the 1990s but he was cleared of all charges.

Looking confident and upbeat after casting his ballot in downtown Podgorica, the capital, Djukanovic said he was “calm and optimistic” about the outcome of the election.

“Tomorrow we will talk about who will do what to contribute to the best interest of Montenegro,” he told reporters.

He also dismissed the corruption allegations leveled by the opposition: “They have been aiming at the same target for two decades, and every time it ended in a fiasco.”

Opinion polls suggest a DPS-dominated alliance was likely to win 47 percent of the vote, versus 24 percent for its nearest rival, the Democratic Front opposition alliance.

The DPS's credentials have been further bolstered by the EU's decision to open accession talks in June.

“They are more experienced and more serious than others and I hope they will bring us prosperity,” said retiree Dimitrije Mitrovic, 62, who voted for the DPS.

The only question was whether the ruling party would need the support of parliamentary deputies from ethnic minority parties to form a government, said Zlatko Vujovic of CEMI, a nongovernment group that will monitor the ballot.

While the DPS has been riding high in opinion polls, some Montenegrins said it was time for a change.

“They have been in power for 23 years, this is their private fiefdom, this is not the state of Montenegro anymore,” said office clerk Slavko Zivkovic, 50, an opposition supporter, after voting at a polling station in a school in downtown Podgorica.

The CEMI election watchdog put voter turnout by 1100 GMT at 33.4 percent, roughly unchanged from the 2009 vote.

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