Both the incumbent and the opposition candidate claimed victory in Montenegro's presidential election Sunday, fueling political tensions in the small Balkan country which is striving for European Union membership. State election authorities had yet to release any official results in the race for the largely ceremonial post.
President Filip Vujanovic, from the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists, said that based on his camp's own, full count of the votes, he had won 51.3 percent of ballots, while opponent Miodrag Lekic won 48.7 percent.
"I want to inform the public that I have achieved a victory," Vujanovic announced. "I would like to thank the citizens of Montenegro."
Lekic's camp, however, said it had counted 97 percent of the ballots and that their candidate had won 50.5 percent of the votes, compared to 49.5 for Vujanovic. The opposition said it expected the result to remain the same until the end of the counting process.
Lekic described his opponent's declaration of victory as "resembling an attempted coup d'etat."
"The citizens of Montenegro have trusted me to become the president," Lekic said. "I urge the other side to act in a serious and responsible manner. We will demand that each ballot be counted."
A contested vote could raise political instability in Montenegro, which opened European Union accession talks last year and needs to move ahead with the necessary reform process.
The presidency, which comes with a five-year term, does not have much power, but the tight result in the election still deals a blow to Montenegro's governing coalition, which has ruled the country virtually unchallenged for more than two decades.
Vujanovic is after his second presidential term since Montenegro became independent in 2006. He is an ally of Montenegro's powerful prime minister Milo Djukanovic and a strong advocate of Montenegro's integration into the EU as well as NATO.
Djukanovic appeared by Vujanovic's side on Sunday. He said Vujanovic's victory is indisputable and urged the opposition to "accept reality."
"The government will not allow anyone to jeopardize the legal order and stability in Montenegro," the prime minister warned.
Lekic is a former ambassador-turned-opposition leader whose candidacy won backing from most of Montenegro's otherwise divided and diverse opposition parties. Lekic has campaigned strongly on allegations that Djukanovic's government is plagued with corruption and crime.
He also has urged a referendum on NATO membership and an apology from the alliance for the 1999 bombing of the country while it was still part of Serb-led Yugoslavia.
For most of Montenegro's more than 600,000 people, the most important issue is the economy. The average salary in the country is less than 500 euros per month, while the unemployment rate officially stands at around 20 percent.
"We have had enough," said Radmila Pavicevic, an elderly resident of Podgorica. "They (authorities) have nearly choked us pensioners to death, and I feel sorry for the young too."
Jovana Gec contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.