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Montenegro's pro-Western ruling party falls short of majority in vote

PODGORICA (Reuters) - President Milo Djukanovic’s pro-Western party suffered a major setback in Montenegro’s parliamentary election, results showed on Monday, winning most votes but losing its majority and so requiring a coalition partner to stay in power.

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The Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), which has governed the tiny Adriatic republic for three decades, secured 35.06% of votes in Sunday’s ballot, the state election commission said, based on a completed preliminary vote count.

An alliance of mainly Serb nationalist parties named For the Future of Montenegro, which seeks closer ties with neighbouring Serbia and with Russia, won 32.55%, and a centrist grouping also opposed to the DPS, Peace is Our Nation, got 12.53%.

Krivokapic’s bloc is backed by the powerful Serbian Orthodox Church, which since December has held daily protests against a law that allows the state to seize religious assets whose historical ownership cannot be proven. The protests overshadowed the election campaign.

The outcome is a disappointment for Djukanovic, who steered Montenegro through the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the dissolution of a joint state with Serbia in 2006, then took his country into NATO in 2017.

Trying to strike an upbeat note, he told supporters late on Sunday that the DPS, as the largest party, could secure 40 deputies in the 81-seat parliament with the help of smaller parties, but that is still one short of a majority.

“The regime has fallen,” a university professor and the leader of the pro-Serb opposition alliance, Zdravko Krivokapic, told his supporters. “A new day in free Montenegro has started.”

Montenegrins who identify as Serbs account for about a third of the 620,000-strong population. Most Montenegrins and Serbs share a language and the Orthodox Christian faith, and many Serbian citizens have roots and families in Montenegro.

A pro-Serb government, if formed, might try to shift the mountainous coastal nation closer to Serbia and Russia, but is not expected to take it out of NATO or abandon its bid to join the European Union.

Djukanovic, who faces re-election as president in 2023, and his top associates have accused Serbia and Russia of using the Church and the pro-Serb opposition to undermine the independence of Montenegro and its pro-Western orientation.

Opposition leaders and democracy and human rights watchdogs have long accused Djukanovic and his party of running Montenegro as their own corrupt fiefdom with links to organised crime. The DPS denies the charges.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the elections “were managed transparently and efficiently” but warned of “widespread abuse of office and state resources that gave the ruling party an undue advantage.”

Any future government must tackle an economic downturn that started in 2019 and was aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic, which gutted tourism revenues, a key driver of the economy.

Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Gareth Jones and Mark Heinrich