Monday March 18th, 2019 3:59PM

Early results show Djukanovic sweeping Montenegro vote

By The Associated Press
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PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — Montenegro's ruling party declared leader Milo Djukanovic the winner of Sunday's presidential election after preliminary projections showed he swept the vote and avoided a runoff.

"Milo Djukanovic is the new president of Montenegro," said Milos Nikolic, from the Democratic Party of Socialists. "This is a great victory, a historic victory."

The Center for Monitoring and Research said after a near-complete vote count that Djukanovic won nearly 34 percent while his main opponent, Mladen Bojanic, won 33 percent.

If confirmed in the official vote count, the result will present a major boost for Djukanovic, who defied Russia to take his country into NATO last year.

The vote, the first since Montenegro joined the Western military alliance in December, was seen as a test for Djukanovic, who favors European integration over closer ties to traditional ally Moscow.

Bojanic, who was backed by several opposition groups, including pro-Russian ones, vowed to continue his struggle against Djukanovic, describing him as "the man holding Montenegro and its institutions hostage."

"I will continue to fight to free Montenegro of Djukanovic and his dictatorship," Bojanic said. "I am appealing to opposition voters not to view this as a defeat but as a basis for further struggle."

Djukanovic, the country's dominant politician, and his Democratic Party of Socialists have ruled Montenegro for nearly 30 years. President Filip Vujanovic of that party was not running due to term limits.

About 530,000 voters were choosing among several candidates in the Adriatic Sea nation that used to be part of Yugoslavia.

Djukanovic has served both as prime minister and president in several mandates since becoming the youngest head of government in Europe at the age of 29 in 1991.

He was prime minister during a tense October 2016 parliamentary election when authorities said they thwarted a pro-Russian coup attempt designed to prevent the country from joining NATO.

Djukanovic led Montenegro to independence from much-larger Serbia in 2006 and was behind the NATO bid. He hopes next to steer the country into the European Union.

Bojanic, an economic expert and former lawmaker, has accused the ruling party of corruption and links to organized crime following a spike in crime-related violence.

The fractured opposition parties supporting Bojanic include the pro-Russian Democratic Front, whose two main leaders are on trial for taking part in the alleged 2016 coup attempt.

Two Russian citizens also are being tried in absentia for the plot, which prosecutors said included a plan to assassinate Djukanovic. The Kremlin has denied involvement.

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