A mini crisis in Podgorica tells us much about Montenegrin politics

Recent events, particularly a municipal-level disagreement between the two ruling parties and the resignation of prime minister Đukanović, are indicative of the new elements at play in Montenegrin politics.

By Milena Milošević and Apostolis Karabairis

News from Montenegro in late November concerning a disagreement between the two ruling parties at the municipal level in the country’s capital Podgorica may not crack the headlines elsewhere in the region or abroad, as lately did prime-minister Milo Đukanović’s resignation. But the imbroglio was indicative of a more profound process and revealed some new elements of the Montenegrin political system as it heads into its fifth year since the country’s velvet divorce with Serbia and under the new circumstances that the premier switch has created.

The dispute involved the refusal of Đukanović’s party, DPS (Demokratska partija socijalista/ Democratic Party of Socialists), the single strongest one in Montenegro, to accept amendments to the new municipal charter of Podgorica proposed by their smaller partner in the ruling coalition, SDP (Socijal-demokratska partija/ Social Democratic Party). SDP was known for its antiwar stance during the ’90s and later its strong support for Montenegrin independence from the state union with Serbia.

The amendments would have required, among other things, that all the contracts concluded by municipal officials should be accessible to the public. DPS defied its smaller partner and, what is most surprising, gained support from part of the opposition, whose votes were eventually enough for the new statute to be adopted without the controversial amendments. Namely, NS (Narodna stranka/ People’s Party) and DSS (Demokratska srpska stranka/ Democratic Serbian Party), which had run in elections as part of a wide coalition under the name “Bolja Podgorica – bolja Crna Gora” (“Better Podgorica – better Montenegro”), in this voting sided with DPS. The whole event not only raised concerns about the future of the ruling coalition; it also demonstrated how shaky the ‘united opposition’ is.

DPS and SDP have a long established partnership to the point that their coalition seems an unquestionable tradition at state level. The two parties had joint electoral lists in the last five parliamentary elections and together formed the last five governments. In the national parliament the two parties cooperate almost without exception. According to Arend Lijphart, a world-renowned theoretician on parties and electoral systems, these criteria are adequate for the two parties to be treated practically as one.

There have been a few occasions of late when DPS and SDP acted independently, if not against each other. One of them, a prelude to the latest events, is SDP’s attitude in Podgorica during the campaign leading up to local elections in May 2010. SDP and DPS had separate electoral lists and, what is more, SDP announced that it will not give support to DPS’s candidate, Miomir Mugoša, in the next mayoral elections set to be held in a separate race next year. After the results came out, SDP emerged as the determining factor of the post-electoral party talks. Not surprisingly, despite pre-electoral distancing from its long-term partner, it entered the coalition with DPS once more. Yet, mutual accusations between certain party leaders created bitterness that lingered on.

How are we to account for the latest friction between the two coalition partners? Experts on Montenegrin politics tend to employ more case-specific explanations when trying to anticipate its potential broader impact. Why, exactly? It has to do, at least in part, with Miomir Mugoša, the mayor of Podgorica, considered by many a controversial personality. He is without a doubt one of Montenegro’s most powerful statesmen having held various ministerial posts for 10 years until 2000, when he switched to mayor of the capital Podgorica, a post he has held without interruption up to now. Mugoša’s temper has often made headlines, most recently with his involvement in a fight with two journalists from Vijesti newspaper. As Montenegrin political sociologist Miloš Bešić says, it is not a typical conflict between two parties, but rather a clash between personality and principles, i.e. the principle of transparency that SDP stands for, as well as SDP’s desire to be an appreciable partner, versus Mugoša’s personal image, which he sought to defend from a possible defeat.

Another explanation stems from the nature of the Montenegrin political system. In typical multi-party systems, opposition parties would try to co-opt a junior governmental partner in an attempt to form a new governmental coalition. Nevertheless, in Montenegro’s one-dominant-party system, opposition parties hold little hope of overturning the all-powerful DPS. Instead, they attempt to replace a minor governing partner. One textbook example is the parties’ behaviour in Podgorica’s municipal assembly vis-à-vis the statute issue, when NS and DSS seized the chance of SDP’s disagreement aiming at taking over its place in the ruling majority, rather than unseating the major governing party. They realise that DPS holds too large a share of municipal council seats to be excluded and, even if they could ever match the numbers, their coalition would be of a thin majority, heterogeneous and disunited, hence far from sustainable.

The case is similar at state level. Even if we assume that this disagreement between DPS and SDP could bring their coalition into question, forming a government without DPS would be extremely difficult due to the opposition’s heterogeneity and fragmentation. In addition, the opposition has recently undergone a process of further fragmentation. Despite their largely common platform and past record of cooperation, in the elections of 2006 they split into two separate alliances and in 2009 ran independently; this fragmentation cost them parliamentary seats, not to mention some of them stayed out of the parliament. Consequently, the only way for an opposition party to enter the government is to seek common ground with the predominant DPS.

This possibility seemed hardly feasible a few years ago. During the independence debate, differences between the independence-minded and the pro-Serbian parties were almost irreconcilable; hence the two blocks were solid. Since the independence issue has been irreversibly addressed, this salient dividing factor has ceased to exist, making it is easier for Montenegrin parties to rethink their role in the political system. Traditional grand coalitions have not totally withered away, but, as the incident in Podgorica’s municipal assembly has shown, they are not as concrete as they once were.

Đukanović’s withdrawal may additionally facilitate these developments. During his 20-year-long rule he convincingly dominated over his opponents and was associated with the war and the independence bid as well as with allegations about dubious privatisations and connections with organised crime. For the Montenegrin opposition, Đukanović is a sort of its bad demon. Therefore, now that he has stepped down (and his intention was already made known by the time of the dispute in Podgorica municipality) opposition feels more at ease to cooperate with the government.

The Podgorica dispute, though headline-grabbing in Montenegro, will not create substantial developments, unless it is followed by a series of similar events. The mini crisis seems unlikely to seriously affect the governmental coalition. Nonetheless, the incident is not without importance. On the one hand, it showed that SDP is something more than a mere satellite party of DPS and that devotion to a coalition does not entail unconditional obedience. On the other hand the incident demonstrated that, unless there is a major shift in Montenegrin politics, DPS will always remain in the ruling majority. Any other combination will be too unsustainable because DPS can pool partners from across the political spectrum, not least thanks to the attractiveness of its power. In post-independence Montenegro clear ideological barriers between party blocks have faded out and new generation politicians are gradually taking over, so it is easier to transcend dividing lines and create various party combinations.

Milena Milošević is a Research Assistant and Apostolis Karabairis is a Junior Researcher at the Athens Working Group: Transforming the Balkans, a programme of the Hellenic Centre for European Studies (EKEM).

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