Voters in Montenegro cast their ballots to choose new lawmakers on Sunday in an early parliamentary vote.
Approximately 542,000 voters had 15 diverse parties on offer, ranging from pro-Western to pro-Serbian and pro-Russian coalitions.
Unofficial results put Europe Now movement in lead
According to the Center for Democratic Transition, an independent pollster, the Europe Now Movement (PES) won 26% of the vote.
Another pollster, the Center for Monitoring and Research (CEMI), put Europe Now on 25.6%.
The party is led by current President Jakov Milatovic and had been projected to come out on top by pre-election polls.
Milatovic won the presidential election in April and promised to root out corruption and lead the country to European Union membership.
The pro-EU Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), the party of former President Milo Djukanovic, won 23% of the vote.
Djukanovic ruled Montenegro for more than 30 years before he lost the presidential election in April.
The results are unofficial and are based on a projection of results from a sample of polling stations. The state election commission is expected to publish the official result in a few days.
The outcome was being followed closely because it could indicate whether the small NATO member in the Balkans would move closer to European Union membership.
Polls earlier in the day suggest coalition government
It was the first parliamentary vote in more than 30 years that did not feature former President Djukanovic, who lost this year for the first time since entering politics in the former Yugoslav republic in the 1990s.
A poll conducted by the Center for Democracy and Human Rights (CEDEM) last month put President Milatovic's Europe Now Movement in the lead with 29.1% of the vote.
Another poll earlier on Sunday had also projected Europe Now to be the top vote-getter.
Milatovic, who is 36, first entered politics in 2020 after completing his studies in the UK and the US.
Promises of the PES party
According to polls, PES was unlikely to secure an absolute majority, and its leading candidate, Milojko Spajic, would probably need partners for a coalition.
He vowed to rejuvenate the economy, which is plagued by mismanagement and is heavily dependent on revenues from the Adriatic seaside tourism.
"We're the only ones talking about infrastructure, about tax reforms," he said.
The party backs accession to the European Union but also favors closer ties with neighboring Serbia.
Montenegro hopes for EU membership
Montenegro is a candidate to join the EU, but it must first root out corruption, nepotism and organized crime.
Over the years, the country with a population of just over 600,000 has been divided between those who identify as Montenegrins and those who see themselves as Serbs.
At the time, Moscow dismissed claims of leading a coup as absurd and the Serbian government denied any involvement.
After Russia invaded Ukraine, Montenegro, unlike Serbia, joined EU sanctions against Moscow. The Kremlin counts the country on its list of unfriendly states.
rm, ns/lo, ab (AP, dpa, Reuters)