Montenegro's pro-West ruling party could be knocked from power for the first time in three decades after an election gave a razor-thin edge to opposition camps, results showed on Monday.
The Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) led by President Milo Djukanovic is still the biggest party after winning just over third of the vote, according to official results from Sunday's election.
But three opposition coalitions who have pledged to unite could outnumber DPS, in what would be a political earthquake for the small Adriatic nation of 620,000 people.
Djukanovic, often described as a political chameleon, has led Montenegro since the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s to independence from Serbia, and more recently into NATO and towards the EU.
His DPS has never lost an election.
But this year the party faced a stiff challenge from an emboldened right-wing and pro-Serb camp who came in a close second, followed by two other oppositions alliances.
Projections by election monitor CeMI gave the three opposition coalitions a combined lead of just one seat -- 41 in the 81-member assembly.
A period of intense talks are expected to follow, with Djukanovic, in his role as president, ultimately responsible for handing down the first mandate.
- 'Tensions inevitable' -
The results were "good news for democracy", even if the opposition's success is not yet a "done deal", said University of Graz professor Florian Bieber.
The three coalitions span the spectrum from "clerical nationalist Serb parties" to a civic-minded liberal camp, he said.
"The range is so wide that tensions are inevitable and the question is whether a new government would be able to survive these tensions," Bieber told AFP, adding that any small defections could bring DPS back to power.
In a statement Monday, the leaders of the coalitions said they would form a government of "experts" to lead the country and bridge its ideological divides.
They also vowed to keep Montenegro on the EU path and continue reforms needed for its accession process.
Analysts attributed DPS's weak showing to a law it passed that sparked huge controversy with the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) and put wind in the sails of Serb nationalist forces.
Passed in late 2019, the legislation opened a path for hundreds of SPC-run monasteries in Montenegro to become state property.
While Montenegro declared independence from Serbia in 2006, a third of its population identify as Serb and the SPC remains its largest religious institution, making debates around identity highly sensitive.
The law ignited months of anti-government protests, led by priests and backed by the pro-Serb opposition who accuse Djukanovic of trying to erase their heritage.
On Monday, several thousand opposition supporters celebrated for a second night outside Podgorica's main Orthodox church, waving Serbian and Montenegrin flags, setting off fireworks and honking car horns.
- 'Struggle is on' -
Speaking at the party's headquarters after the vote late Sunday, Djukanovic underlined that DPS had the "strongest" finish and that the "struggle for the majority is still on".
The president, who has previously served four terms as premier, will not face election himself until 2023.
While he has won plaudits for fortifying ties with the West, Djukanovic's critics accuse him of turning the country into a personal fiefdom built on graft and crime links.
The US-based Freedom House rights group recently downgraded Montenegro from a democracy to a "hybrid regime" under Djukanovic's "strongman" rule.
OSCE election monitors said the poll was transparent, but that "widespread abuse of office and state resources gave the ruling party an undue advantage".