By Petar Komnenic
PODGORICA (Reuters) - Montenegro's ruling party is set to extend its 23-year hold on the ex-Yugoslav republic in a parliamentary election on Sunday, allowing it to lead talks on joining the European Union.
Despite economic stagnation and accusations of high-level corruption, the Democratic Party of Socialists remains popular for having championed the independence of the country of 680,000 people six years ago.
Victory for the ruling party could also mean the return to power of its leader, 50-year old Milo Djukanovic, prime minister or president for all but two years in the last two decades.
"There are a lot of problems, but this government deserves some more time because, unlike the opposition, they fought for this country," said Zoran Djurovic, a 68-year old pensioner.
Opinion polls show the party is likely to win 47 percent of the vote compared to 24 percent for its nearest rival, the Democratic Front opposition alliance. Its credentials have been further strengthened by the EU decision to open accession talks in June.
"There is not much doubt they will be in power again," said Zoran Vujovic of CEMI, a non-governmental group that will monitor the ballot.
The only question was whether the party would still need the support of parliamentary deputies from ethnic minorities who are already part of the ruling coalition, Vujovic said.
Djukanovic's campaign was based on the message that an opposition victory could endanger the independence which Montenegro won in 2006 from much bigger neighbor Serbia.
Although the opposition favors closer ties with Serbia, it does not want to reverse independence. It also seeks to bring Montenegro into the European Union, but unlike the ruling party, it is less clear that it would want NATO membership.
Led by Miodrag Lekic, a former Yugoslav ambassador to Rome under late strongman Slobodan Milosevic, the Democratic Front has campaigned largely on an anti-corruption platform.
Djukanovic stepped down as prime minister in 2010 for handpicked successor Igor Luksic, but has remained influential.
"He is the only leader who has the ability to lead the country," said Zorica Jovanic, 28, a nurse from the capital Podgorica. "He is much smarter than all his opponents."
Montenegro's economy flourished after Djukanovic led it away from Serbia thanks to booming tourism and foreign investment on the scenic Adriatic coast.
But this year, the economy is forecast to grow by only 0.5 percent. Montenegro has been weighed down by the debts of its state-owned aluminum plant as well as the euro zone crisis.
Per capita output is 5,200 euros ($6,700), barely one-fifth of the EU average, but the economy has not been a big feature in the campaign.
Polls will open at 0500 GMT and close at 1900 GMT, with first results expected several hours later.
Smaller opposition blocs, including the Socialist People's Party and the Positive Montenegro alliance, could play a role in forming a future government if neither of the biggest parties wins enough votes.
After Croatia, due to join next July, Montenegro is the only Balkan state that could become an EU member by the end of this decade.
($1 = 0.7712 euros)
(Writing by Zoran Radosavljevic)