Local elections may herald a period of flux in Montenegro

While Djukanovic’s ruling party has claimed victory, the opposition seems likely to be galvanised by their relatively strong showing in the capital and elsewhere.

By Kenneth Morrison

The results of Montenegro’s municipal elections, held on 23 May, appear to demonstrate that the country’s politics continues to follow a familiar script. Montenegro, after all, has not seen a change of government, at least not through the mechanism of democratic elections, since the first democratic elections took place there in 1990.

But we may be entering a sustained period of flux. While the seemingly resounding election victory of the “Coalition for a European Montenegro”, led by the Democratic Party of Socialists, DPS, may on a superficial level seem convincing, these results may be obscuring the bigger picture and overshadowing the developing political climate in Montenegro.

The leadership of the DPS are well aware that while they can claim a convincing victory there will also be discomfort about what these results convey in terms of the direction of Montenegrin politics.

The elections took place in a difficult political and economic context for the government. A stuttering economy, worsening industrial strife and a growing sense of political uncertainty characterised the campaign environment.

Increasingly nervous about the momentum of the opposition, the government called the municipal elections for 23 May against the wishes of the opposition who wanted the elections held on 6 June.

The latter’s objection was simply that the government would use the coincidence of the election campaign with the fourth anniversary of Montenegrin independence to subtly remind the electorate of the DPS’s key role in delivering independence in 2006.

And indeed, the leadership of the DPS-led coalition, which included the Liberal Party, LP, and the Bosniak Party, BS, did just that. The rhetorical cornerstone of the “Coalition for a European Montenegro” was safety in continuity. The inexperienced, and “anti-Montenegrin” united opposition, they argued, could not be trusted to govern at any level in these tough economic times.

As is standard in Montenegrin politics, personal attacks were commonplace. The DPS-led coalition sought to undermine their opponents, particularly Nebojsa Medojevic. He was cast as an ambitious charlatan, concerned primarily with his own desire for power – a man who would “jump into bed” with any political partner who would assist him in this quest.

Such attacks were not merely limited to opposition politicians. On the eve of the elections, the Montenegrin Prime Minister, Milo Djukanovic, made controversial allegations that his Serbian counterpart, Boris Tadic, was meddling in Montenegro’s domestic affairs. Djukanovic alleged that one of Tadic’s closest advisors had been tasked with providing financial and logistical assistance to the opposition, with a view, in Djukanovic’s words, to “reversing Montenegro’s independence”.

The “Better Montenegro” coalition, consisting of 12 parties, but led by the Movement for Changes, PzP, New Serbian Democracy, NOVA, and Socialist People’s Party, SNP, contested the elections following months of negotiations among a previously fractious opposition.

The coalition was a broad front comprised of opposition parties, but supported by NGOs and other non-governmental structures. With little to unite them but their almost pathological hatred of the ruling elite, they had to emphasise their commonalities, whilst playing down clear differences. Thus, they went to significant lengths to highlight the ineptitude of the government in managing the country’s economic affairs, their alleged lack of strategy for mitigating the effects of the economic crisis and inefficiency of state institutions in the fight against organised crime.

While the term “change” was omnipresent, Medojevic, adorned in his now-characteristic white shirt with rolled-up sleeves a-la-Obama, stuck to traditional rhetoric, speaking at length about the alleged links between organised criminals and the Montenegrin government. In addition to his regular accusations that Djukanovic was an instrumental player in the cigarette smuggling trade in the 1990s, he recently alleged that the Saric brothers (one of whom, Darko, is wanted by Interpol and the Serbian government on drug trafficking charges) had funded the DPS’s local election campaign in Zabljak in August 2009. These public pronouncements represented a risky gambit for Medojevic, as it remains unclear whether his actions attracted or repelled voters.

Holistically the opposition coalition has utilised a blend of both positive and negative campaigning. This strategy proved quite effective, and the results show that there may well be a strong enough alternative to DPS dominance. Yet, despite the consolidation of the opposition, the DPS seem for the time being to have weathered the storm.

The party has claimed victory in seven of Montenegro’s 14 municipalities, including the traditional opposition strongholds of Andrijevica, Kolasin and Zabljak. They claim to have increased their overall share of the vote. The opposition, who on the eve of the election had predicted a “landslide” in their favour, claimed victory in Pljevlja and the SNP, who ran independently in some municipalities, did so in Pluzine.

So, DPS dominance seems assured – but is it? The opposition can draw encouragement from the fact that the presence of a strong opposition coalition stopped the DPS from acquiring an absolute majority in the capital, Podgorica. No party won an absolute majority there and accusations and recriminations began soon after. Medojevic claimed that in the absence of international observers there were “numerous irregularities” during voting in the city and that some voters (their supporters) had been inexplicably removed from the electoral register or had been requested to vote at different polling stations to those which were registered.

In the final analysis, however, it will be the Social Democratic Party, SDP, who decide which bloc will enjoy a majority. Their leaders were reluctant to confirm with whom they would enter a coalition, but it is likely that they will enter into an agreement with the DPS, their coalition partner at state level. Given their position as kingmaker in Podgorica, they may seek to extract significant concessions from Montenegro’s largest party. They may seek the election of a new Mayor of Podgorica when Miomir Mugosa’s tenure expires, although this may be unpalatable for the DPS leadership.

So what do these results tell us about the state of Montenegrin politics? That a united opposition was formed and contested the elections is a sign that it is possible to forge a viable opposition. The opposition coalition, despite obvious differences between component parties, has proved surprisingly resilient. Whether this momentum can be maintained to facilitate a similar campaign at national level remains to be seen, but it seems likely that the opposition coalition will be galvanised by the results and seek to build upon their success in national elections.

Within the DPS, change is also inevitable. Djukanovic announced in March that he would formally retire, although he stopped short of giving a specific timeframe for his withdrawal. He stressed that he wanted to retire in order to pursue his private business interests and denied that his decision had been influenced by international pressure. Who his successor will be remains a matter of heated debate within the party, and the source of possible divisions.

Change, or at least a recalibration of the Montenegrin political scene, is inevitable – be it through an intra-DPS struggle and subsequent realignment, or via the mechanism of democratic elections. Regardless of this, the fundamental problem is that the DPS controls many aspects of Montenegrin society, and changing this will require a complete change in the political culture. Reconfiguring the structure of power is the greatest challenge and the most significant inhibiting factor in achieving genuine change. What form change will take, how or when it will happen, remains to be seen. But whatever form it may take, Montenegro needs it.

Kenneth Morrison is a Senior Lecturer in Modern East European History at De Montfort University and is the author of ‘Montenegro: A Modern History’, IB Tauris, 2009.

This article first appeared in Balkan Insight on Wednesday 26th May 2010.


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