PODGORICA, Montenegro (Reuters) - Both sides claimed victory in a presidential election in Montenegro on Sunday, raising the prospect of a dispute over the largely ceremonial post in the tiny Adriatic country as it bids to join the European Union.
With no independent exit poll or official word from the state electoral commission, both incumbent Filip Vujanovic and opposition challenger Miodrag Lekic took to the airwaves to announce they had won.
Lekic compared his rival's claim to a "coup d'etat".
The president is largely a figurehead for Montenegro's 680,000 people, with real power vested in the prime minister. But a Lekic victory would set up an awkward cohabitation and deal a significant blow to the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) after more than two decades in power.
Based on his camp's own count, the DPS's Vujanovic said he had won 51.3 percent of votes compared to 48.7 for Lekic, a former diplomat.
"This is the winning result," Vujanovic said in a televised address.
The opposition Democratic Front said Lekic was ahead according to its own count, by 50.5 percent to 49.5.
"I can announce that the people of Montenegro have entrusted me with the post of president," Lekic said in a televised address. Reacting to Vujanovic's own victory claim, he added: "We will not accept theft."
The state electoral commission, which had been expected to pronounce during the night, said it would announce the official result within 48 hours of polls closing at 8 p.m. (07:00 p.m. british time).
A disputed result raises the prospect of street protests, and will unnerve the European Union as it tries to steer the mountainous country through a raft of reforms to ready it for membership. Accession talks began in mid-2012, and could last several years.
Vujanovic, bidding for a third five-year term, had portrayed Lekic as a threat to Montenegro's young statehood. The country voted narrowly in a referendum in 2006 to end an 88-year state union with Serbia.
Lekic, 65, is backed by a number of small parties that campaigned against independence. Around 100 supporters gathered outside his party's headquarters in the capital, Podgorica, waving Serbian national flags.
He has flatly denied planning to compromise Montenegrin statehood, and accuses the DPS of monopolising power in the interests of a corrupt elite.
Vujanovic and the DPS have been in power since federal Yugoslavia began unravelling in the early 1990s, during which time Montenegro has won a reputation for rampant graft and organised crime.
Analysts say an economic downturn triggered by falling foreign investment, and the opposition accusations of corruption, have eaten into support for the DPS, which was re-elected in a parliamentary election in October but without an outright majority.
"We need change," said Ivan Bulatovic, 35, a salesman who voted early in Podgorica and backed Lekic.
"We need someone to challenge these guys who have been in power for the last 25 years. We need someone new who's going to rise up against corruption, to speak out against authorities that brought us only hunger."
Montenegro is next in line for EU membership behind fellow former Yugoslav republic Croatia, which joins in July. Serbia is a candidate for membership but has yet to begin talks.
The DPS denies that Montenegro is any worse than the rest of the Balkan region in terms of graft and organised crime.
"Vujanovic is an honest man," said Miljan Nestorovic, a 44-year-old economist. "He was part of the crew that brought back our independence. He's a guarantee of political stability and I trust him."