"The stakes are high," he told the voters at a recent rally. "After six years of independence, our statehood is still fragile and we still need to strengthen it. We can't give our country to those who were against its independence."

Milos Besic of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights said that "no doubt Djukanovic's popularity and charisma are still at a high level," despite the economic crisis and widespread accusations by opposition and some international groups that he and his family have been involved in corruption and links with organized crime.

Djukanovic has repeatedly rejected such allegations, including an investigation by Italian prosecutors who had suspected his government of a multimillion-dollar cigarette smuggling operation during international sanctions imposed on Milosevic-led Yugoslavia in the 1990s' because of the Serbian strongman's warmongering policies.

Djukanovic's most serious opponent this weekend is Miodrag Lekic, a former diplomat and an associate turned foe.

"By insisting on national and other divisions, Djukanovic has tried to avoid real problems," Lekic said, describing Montenegro as "a country of captured institutions, where some individuals and groups behave as if they were outside of the legal system."

Montenegro has faced an economic downturn following a boom in the first years after the independence. Currently, unemployment officially stands at more than 12 percent, while the average salary is around ⿬480 ($622) per month.

In this week's progress report, the EU praised Montenegro's reforms, but added that more needs to be done to strengthen the rule of law, judicial independence and fight against crime and corruption.

Even though it lags far behind the ruling coalition, Lekic's Democratic Front hopes to forge a post-election coalition with smaller opposition groups to counter Djukanovic. The pro-Serb Socialist People's Party is slated to win nearly 15 percent of the vote, and a newcomer, Positive Montenegro, could garner about 10 percent.

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Jovana Gec and Dusan Stojanovic from Belgrade, Serbia, contributed.

Copyright 2011 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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