Montenegro's ruling pro-independence coalition narrowly won Sunday's parliamentary election in Montenegro, according to projections by local monitoring agencies.
But the projected victory for the bloc led by Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic was smaller than previously forecast by opinion polls and his own party, the Democratic Party of Socialists.
The election had been dominated by the issue of whether the small coastal republic should seek independence from Belgrade, finally scrapping the Yugoslav federation.
Prior to the vote, analysts said Djukanovic's margin of victory would help determine whether he presses ahead with a promised referendum on independence.
In its final projection, the Centre for Monitoring said the coalition named "Victory is Montenegro's" won 42 percent of the vote, against 40.9 percent for a leftist bloc which favours preserving links with Yugoslavia's bigger republic of Serbia.
This result would give the pro-independence bloc 35 seats in the 77-seat parliament against 33 seats for the anti-independence grouping, the agency said.
The pro-independence Liberal Alliance Party won six seats, according to the projection. This would give parties favouring independence a majority in the assembly.
Another monitoring agency, the Centre for Democratic Transition, gave almost identical seat distribution figures.
Opinion polls had forecast a victory of between seven and 18 percentage points for Djukanovic's coalition over the anti-independence opposition bloc.
Early official results put Djukanovic's coalition ahead by some six percentage points.
With 12 percent of the votes counted, the republic's election commission said the coalition had won 44.17 percent of the vote against 37.81 percent for the anti-independence grouping.
WEST WATCHING VOTE
The West was watching the vote closely, concerned that a drive for statehood, 10 years after the original six-republic Yugoslavia broke up violently, could polarise Montenegrins and pour fuel on smouldering separatism in Kosovo, Bosnia and Macedonia.
Djukanovic argues that Montenegro is already independent in all but name, having distanced itself from Serbia while Slobodan Milosevic was Yugoslav president.
Montenegro is plagued by corruption and smuggling, but Djukanovic says the republic can develop and reform more quickly with its own access to international financial institutions.
Montenegro was independent from 1878 to 1918, when it became part of the new state that later became Yugoslavia.
Earlier on Sunday, a senior official of Djukanovic's Party claimed victory in the election, saying the pro-independence bloc according their information had won a majority.
"Montenegro and the citizens of Montenegro voted to take their future into their own hands," the official, Miodrag Vukovic, told a news conference.
The Centre for Monitoring, a local monitoring agency, said turnout reached 81.1 percent, with a margin of error of one percent up or down.
"This is a record compared to previous Montenegrin elections," the organisation's head, Zlatko Vujovic, said.
He said the high turnout reflected the importance the elections held "for the future of Montenegro, Serbia and the whole region."
Marko Blagojevic, head of the Centre for Free Elections and Democracy (CESID) agency, said there had just been a few irregularities which he said could not influence the regularity of the entire voting process.
"This election day ended as it started, peacefully and in accordance with the law," he told reporters.
More than 200 officials from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observed the election along with more than 2,000 local independent monitors.