Both sides claim victory in Montenegro

PODGORICA, Jun 12, 2000 -- (Reuters) Local elections in Montenegro handed victory to the pro-Western government in the capital Podgorica on Monday but gave its pro-Serbia opponents control of the coastal town of Herzeg Novi.

Officials from the ruling coalition that has edged Montenegro away from Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia over the past two years admitted they were defeated in the smaller of the two towns where early polls were held on Sunday.

So while in Podgorica the streets were full of cars hooting their horns to celebrate Montenegrin autonomy, in Herzeg Novi residents celebrated what they saw as a guarantee of the preservation of the Serbia-dominated federation.

Montenegro, the only republic still left alongside Serbia in Yugoslavia, has a total population well under 1 million. The polls in the two towns have attracted worldwide attention because of concern that Montenegro could see violence like that which hit other republics that split from Serbia.

Full official results had yet to be issued later on Monday but electoral officials said the ruling "For a Better Life" coalition had won a firm lead in the capital with almost all the votes counted.

The coalition expected to get around 28 of the 54 seats in the local assembly with 22 for their "Yugoslavia" rivals.

In Herzeg Novi, where a large number of pensioners and war veterans boosted the vote for the Milosevic-backed Yugoslavia coalition, election officials said the government had won around 14 places in the 35-seat assembly while Yugoslavia had 19.


Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, who had earlier predicted victory in both towns, put a brave face on the result.

"Today we can say for sure that Montenegro is marching on a stable, democratic, reformist path and that no one can distract it from that path," he said.

"Our victory in Podgorica is much better and greater than our defeat in Herzeg Novi," he added.

For the Liberal Alliance, which provoked the elections by pulling out of government-led local coalitions hoping to improve its showing and press for anti-corruption measures and an early referendum on independence, the vote was a heavy blow.

It kept its four seats in Podgorica but will have less influence there since the government no longer needs it to govern. In Herzeg Novi it lost one seat, leaving it with two.

Other parties, including an ethnic Albanian coalition and a group of independents, did not win any seats.

The opposition victory on the coast helped to dispel fears of violence in what is potentially an explosive republic, where the well-equipped police force is controlled by Djukanovic and Yugoslav army units by Milosevic.

Some members of the opposition had predicted trouble if they had lost, saying that a defeat would have resulted from fraud.

Predrag Bulatovic, a leader of the Yugoslavia bloc, said afterwards that the vote proved the people of Montenegro, who are mainly Orthodox Slavs, wanted to live with fellow-Slav Serbia.

"In this election the citizens showed they were for the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia," Bulatovic said, adding that the victory in Herzeg Novi meant his party, already strong in the north now held a third of Montenegro's 21 municipalities.

Electoral officials had said earlier that they had had no formal complaints and that voting had gone smoothly.

International monitors said there had been individual incidents but that they did not seem to add up to much, although they would not have a full picture until later on Monday.

Original article