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Presidential runoff in Montenegro begins

voting October 19, 1997
Web posted at: 2:44 p.m. EDT (1844 GMT)

PODGORICA, Yugoslavia (CNN) -- Voters in the tiny Yugoslav republic of Montenegro headed to polling booths Sunday for a presidential runoff election that could play a role in deciding Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's political fate.

The two candidates, prime minister Milo Djukanovic and Momir Bulatovic, squared off two weeks ago, with Bulatovic garnering about 2,000 more votes than his opponent -- not enough to gain an absolute majority and forcing Sunday's runoff.

Early turnout among Montenegro's 460,000 eligible voters was heavy. Polls opened at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT/1 a.m. EDT) and were due to close at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT/ 2 p.m. EDT). First official results were expected Monday.

Djukanovic is widely supported by the young and by intellectuals, while Bulatovic has the support of old communists and nationalists who still believe in the Yugoslav federation.

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A staunch critic of Milosevic, Djukanovic, if he wins, may try to split up Yugoslavia -- now consisting of Montenegro and Serbia -- by breaking away from the federation.

A win for Bulatovic, who is endorsed by Milosevic, could give limited help to the Yugoslav president, whose grip in the region has been weakened by presidential and parliamentary elections in Serbia.

Montenegro, which has only a fraction of Serbia's 9.4 million population, controls half of the upper house of Yugoslav parliament, which has the power to choose or dismiss Yugoslavia's president.

As he voted Sunday, Bulatovic claimed there were "numerous" irregularities and indicated that he may demand elections be declared null and void if he loses. He said he had already complained to the electoral commission.

There was no immediate comment from Djukanovic on Sunday's balloting.

Acrimony flared anew as campaigning resumed in the past two weeks. In a TV duel, Bulatovic, seeking to play on old Serb suspicions, accused Djukanovic of having the support of "anti-Yugoslav forces" including ethnic Albanians and Muslims. Djukanovic replied by saying "Bulatovic is supported by fascists and communists."

Djukanovic alleged that Bulatovic embezzled $15 million intended for the purchase of two Boeing passenger planes. Bulatovic countered that Djukanovic was behind a multi-million dollar cigarette-smuggling operation that goes through Montenegro on the way to Western black markets.

 
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