Montenegro's ruling coalition look set to stay at the helm after parliamentary elections Sunday in the tiny Balkans nation which is an EU candidate nation.
The centre-left European Montenegro coalition, headed by veteran politician Milo Djukanovic, won 46.1 percent of the votes cast, well ahead of the largest opposition bloc, the Democratic Front, which took 20 percent, according to an exit poll by the University of Podgorica presented on state television.
The exit poll and another survey by independent election monitor CEMI suggest the centre-left grouping has not won an outright majority in the 81-seat parliament but can easily form a government by teaming up with its traditional allies, smaller parties representing minorities.
The first official results are expected to be released later Monday. CEMI said that overall turnout was 70.3 percent, slightly higher than for the 2009 vote, when it reached 66.9 percent.
A smiling Djukanovic, who has been at the centre of power in Montenegro since the 1990s, proclaimed victory for his coalition late Sunday at his party headquarters.
"Dear friends, we have won ... We have all the conditions to start working from tomorrow (Monday) on the formation of a government that will lead Montenegro on the path to European Union and NATO integration and improve the quality of life for all citizens," Djukanovic, dressed in a blue suit, told a crowd of up to 600 supporters to chants of 'Milo we love you'.
If the polls are confirmed, it will mark the ruling party's third win in as many elections since Montenegro's independence from decades-long partner Serbia in 2006.
The government had called early elections in a bid to capitalise on the European Union's decision in June to open accession talks with Podgorica. The ruling coalition also wanted to go into the EU entry talks with a new four-year mandate.
Djukanovic is the only leader in the volatile Balkans whose party has survived and won every election since the start of the region's bloody 1990s wars. Since independence he has served twice as prime minister and was president from 1998 to 2002.
During the campaign, he hit out at the opposition which he accused of undermining Montenegro's independence by seeking closer ties with Serbia.
"High stakes are at play.... After six years, our statehood is still weak and we have to strengthen it," Djukanovic warned.
The opposition Democratic Front, led by former foreign minister Miodrag Lekic, has underlined the ruling party's weaknesses: an unemployment rate of 20 percent and ongoing claims of government corruption.
In its annual progress report, the European Commission noted that Montenegro, which has some 625,000 inhabitants, has implemented key economic reforms, but said it should make more efforts to uphold the rule of law and fight organised crime and corruption.
Montenegro's economy grew by 2.7 percent in 2011, with the government forecasting an expansion of just 0.5 percent this year. State debt has reached a "worrisome" 58 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), its central bank has said.
Montenegro's relatively undiversified economy relies heavily on foreign investment, which drove an economic boom between 2006 and 2008. The average monthly salary is 480 euros ($620).
Of the six former Yugoslav republics, only Slovenia is a member of the European Union, since 2004, with Croatia set to become the bloc's newest member next year.