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Montenegro’s election: Different context, same outcome

Montenegrin politics has been dominated by the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), the successors of the Montenegrin League of Communists (SKCG), since the former Yugoslav republic’s first multi-party elections in 1990. The party’s leading figure, Milo Djukanović, has held the position of either prime minster or president (excluding two short sabbaticals) constantly since then. The latest elections promised to be the most closely contested since Montenegro regained its independence in 2006. And while the DPS’s hold on power had been relatively stable since (though coalition agreements were needed to ensure this), the striking difference in the latest parliamentary election was that the DPS were contesting them independently (not in a pre-election coalition), as were their partners in the governing coalition created after the 2012 election. The outcome of the vote was, therefore, rather unpredictable.

October 17, 2016 - Kenneth Morrison - Articles and Commentary

Vlada Crne Gore

Despite being invited to join NATO (though there is no public consensus regarding this) and making slow but steady progress toward European Union membership, Montenegro has been through significant political turmoil in the past year. In October 2015, police used tear gas and truncheons to break-up anti-government protests in Podgorica and, thereafter, the government made a number of concessions to opposition parties, allowing their representatives closer oversight of ministries, public enterprises and institutions, in order to ensure free and fair elections. The events marking ten years of the re-establishment of Montenegro’s independence earlier this year were more muted than one might have expected. And the issue of domestic security is one that is the cause of great concern for many Montenegrin citizens. The failure of the DPS-led government to tackle the conflict between drug-smuggling gangs (particularly acute in the coastal town of Kotor) has increased fears that they cannot bring the situation under control. Recent polls suggest support for the DPS was waning, so in a year of political flux the party faced significant challenges.

The tone and content of the pre-election campaigns were as expected. The DPS claimed that a vote for them would be a safe step; a vote for stability, economic growth, increased investment in the country’s infrastructure as well as an affirmation of Montenegro’s independence and future integration into NATO (for which Montenegro has already received an invitation) and the European Union. But even the upper echelons of the party experienced in election campaigns, seemed acutely aware of the potential for an uncertain outcome. In mitigation, they launched an energetic campaign, during which Djukanović warned that the stakes were high and that the opposition were unpatriotic, irresponsible, treacherous and willing to “jeopardise public peace and order, violating laws and undermining state institutions” to gain power. 

The DPS singled-out the Democratic Front (DF) – comprising Andrija Mandić’s New Serb Democracy (NOVA) and Nebojsa Medojević’s Movement for Changes (PzP), as well as a number of other small parties – as those most likely to cause trouble. Djukanović cast them as dangerous and accused them of attempting to undermine Montenegro’s sovereignty and of accepting money from Russia to finance their anti-Montenegrin and anti-NATO campaign. The DF, the DPS leadership claimed, planned to destabilise Montenegro in the event of a DPS’s victory. The director of the Montenegrin police, Slavko Stojanović (who the opposition claim explicitly aligns with the DPS) announced prior to the election that police had operational information that suggested that certain (opposition) elements may attempt to instigate unrest and that the police were prepared for such incidents. On October 15th Montenegrin police arrested Bratislav Dikić, a former Serbian Gendarmerie who, they alleged, was part of an armed criminal organisation that aimed to subvert the election process and to attack citizens and police officers near government buildings in Podgorica. The DF immediately dismissed his arrest as a stunt to discredit the opposition and intimidate voters. 

On the whole, opposition parties focused on electoral processes. They claimed that the DPS had used state resources to provide various “incentives” such as the writing-off of utility bills and purchasing identity cards to buy votes. The Ključ (Key) coalition – comprising of the Democratic Alliance (DEMOS), the Socialist People’s Party (SNP) and United Reform Action (URA) –claimed that the DPS had plundered Montenegro’s wealth and had been an abject failure in government. During a pre-election rally in Podgorica, Miodrag Lekić, the de facto leader of Key said the coalition wanted to “put Montenegro back on the right path”. Aleksa Bečić’s Democratic Montenegro (DCG) ran independently with an energetic campaign during which they expressed their willingness to work for a grand alliance of anti-DPS opposition parties after the election.   

On the face of it, the opposition appeared in a strong position to challenge the DPS. If united, they could be stronger than the ruling party, but the opposition have failed to do so. The DF, Key and the DCG have implied that a post-election coalition is possible and that a good basis for a ruling coalition involving opposition parties existed, however, past experience suggests that would be an optimistic assessment. For other opposition parties prospects were mixed: The SDP and PCG were in a fighting for their very survival. Conversely, they could be kingmakers, deciding whether to enter a coalition with the DPS or unite within a grand coalition. However, the DCG’s Aleksa Bečić cautioned against considering a post-election coalition with the DPS, stating that any party that did so would be “the biggest traitors in Montenegrin history”.

Allegations of irregularities in the electoral process were commonplace. Goran Danilović of the Socialist People’s Party (SNP) and the current minister of police, refused to endorse the electoral roll, believing it to be inaccurate (the DPS-led government arranged for it to be signed in his stead). In addition, the non-governmental organisation MANS claimed that the election would be characterised by irregularities, as was the case in the past. They also claimed that the DPS’s election campaign had drawn significantly from state funds and that 18.5 million euro had been spent on “employment, subsidies, loans and debt write-offs”. As a result of this, they argued, the DPS had a significant advantage.

On polling day the turnout was relatively high (compared to the elections in 2009 and 2012) and by 8pm, when the polling stations closed, 73.2 per cent of those eligible to vote had done so. The day was tense and not without incidents, with party activists involved in scuffles outside polling stations, the most serious of them in the northern town of Rožaje. To add to the sense of crisis, Montenegro’s electronic communications agency (AEK) ordered all of the country’s three mobile operators to bar the use of Viber and Whatsapp (used quite effectively by opposition parties, particularly the DF), on the pretext that a significant volume of spam was being sent via mobile networks. The AEK’s justification was rubbished by the opposition who argued that they had been blocked to stop citizens reporting electoral irregularities.   

As early results came in, it was evident that while the DPS vote did not collapse, they had only achieved a relative majority, failing to garner enough votes to secure a parliamentary majority (41.4 per cent of the vote and 36 seats in parliament). The opposition, particularly the DF, performed well with 20.3 per cent of the vote and 18 seats, opening the possibility of forming a governing coalition should the DPS fail to secure enough support from potential coalition partners. The Key coalition secured only 11 per cent of the vote and nine seats, the DCG gained eight seats, while Ivan Brajović’s Social Democrats (SD) won two seats.   

Now, as the party with the largest share of the vote, the DPS will attempt to form a government and forge a coalition that would hold at least 41 of the 81 seats in parliament. Djukanović may attempt to cut deals with Albanian, Croat and Bosniak ethnic-minority parties (with four seats between them), but cannot do so with Darko Pajović’s Positive Montenegro (PCG), which failed to meet the threshold. The DP could also do so with the SDP, which passed the threshold and won four seats, although it should be emphasised that the relations between the DPS and SDP (long-time coalition partners) have rarely been worse.

While the DPS endeavour to form a majority government, the opposition, who have claimed that they could potentially garner 41 seats in post-election agreements, will wait and watch, hoping that the DPS are unable to do so. However, Milo Djukanović, addressing supporters in Podgorica in the early morning, seemed confident that the DPS would be successful in creating a coalition. A coalition agreement has yet to be reached, but it seems likely that the DPS will cross the line and form a government. Political change in Montenegro, after 27 years of DPS’s rule, will have to wait.      

Kenneth Morrison is a Professor of Modern Southeast European History, De Montfort University, UK, and the author of Montenegro: A Modern History and Nationalism, Identity and Statehood in Post-Yugoslav Montenegro (forthcoming).  

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