Everything comes to an end: how the DPS lost power in Montenegro

There was no one single factor that brought the DPS down. As with most tectonic social and political changes, the reality is more complex and nuanced. Numerous factors, including the involvement of the Church, the unified opposition, the emergence of a second Croat national minority party, the COVID-19 pandemic, corruption scandals, and testimonies by former insiders, all played a role.

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By B. Miladinovic

On 30 August 2020, something rather unusual happened in Montenegro, a small Balkan nation of 620,000 people. The Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), led by Milo Đukanović, which had ruled the country since the establishment of the multiparty system in 1990, was defeated in parliamentary elections. Three opposition lists, which had pledged to form the next government together, won close to 51% of the vote, while the DPS sunk to 35%, its lowest percentage ever. This outcome took by surprise most political actors, pundits, and regular folk, both in Montenegro and across the region.

How did this happen? How did the party sometimes described as the best organized political machine in Europe lose its grip on power? Could such an outcome not have been foreseen?

Two weeks have now passed since the election. Passions, which have been running high since then, have subsided somewhat, and the State Electoral Commission has confirmed, verified, and published the definite results, giving the three opposition group 41 seats out of 81, while the got DPS 30, and other small parties split the remaining 10 seats. The new Parliament is expected to be formed in the coming weeks and, with it, the new governing majority should be formalized. While Đukanović still remains President of the country (a largely ceremonial function according to the Constitution), Montenegro will no longer be the only European country to have never changed government in a peaceful manner, through elections.

This article will argue that there was no one single factor that brought the DPS down. As with most tectonic social and political changes, the reality is more complex and nuanced. Below is a non-exhaustive list of elements which have contributed to the defeat of the longest-lasting ruling party in recent European history.

The Church. At its party congress in November 2019, the DPS adopted a resolution on the “renewal” of the “historical” Montenegrin Orthodox Church (CPC). In a country where some 75% of the population is Christian Orthodox, the canonical Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) has been dominant for a long time, and a large majority of Orthodox believers adhere to it. In public opinion polls, year-after-year, the SPC has been listed as an institution which enjoys the highest level of trust among the citizens. Meanwhile, the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, not recognized by the global Orthodox community, has had a small but dedicated following. DPS officials at the congress said that they wanted to “finalize” the process of Montenegro’s independence, which was renewed in 2006, by instating the CPC as the “officially recognized state church”. A month after the congress, the Parliament of Montenegro, in which the DPS, with its partners, controlled a majority of seats, adopted the Law on the Freedom of Religion. Several articles of the Law stipulated that the Serbian Orthodox Church would have to prove its historical ownership of physical land, churches, and monasteries; otherwise those would become the property of the state.

The SPC felt that the Law was deliberately targeting it and aiming to take away its “historical” property, which could then be handed over to the future “official” church – the emboldened CPC. The SPC appealed to its flock to express their discontent and show the ruling party that the Law was unacceptable. In January 2020, massive peaceful demonstrations, organized by the SPC, started across Montenegro on a weekly basis, sometimes gathering tens of thousands of participants in different cities. While some attempts at a compromise were made, the DPS eventually doubled-down on its commitment to fully implement the controversial Law, describing those protesting against the Law as “traitors”, “the fifth column”, “religious fanatics”, or even “clerical fascists”. Some DPS officials went as far as to compare the capital Podgorica during the protest processions to Teheran during the 1979 Islamic revolution. Most protests subsided due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the discontent among a large part of the Orthodox population continued to brew throughout the summer.

With the election approaching, Amfilohije, the 82-year old SPC Metropolitan bishop in Montenegro, called upon the population to vote massively against those who had turned against the Church (i.e. the DPS), saying that he too would vote in an election for the first time in his life. With the turnout in the election very high (77%), and the DPS’s eventual net loss of almost 20,000 votes, it seems that this extraordinary appeal to the voters by the church leader played a significant, and just possibly decisive, part. While some analysts have decried the active involvement of the SPC in the election, one needs to remember that it was the DPS, a nominally socialist party, which pushed for a creation of a “state church” in Montenegro, a nominally secular state, thus opening Pandora’s box of state-church interweaving.

The Opposition. Historically, the opposition in Montenegro had been chronically divided, with different factions going against each other as much as they had been going against the long-ruling DPS. The opposition had been, often justly, accused of a lack of vision and unity, and had been instead driven apart by personal enmities, vanity, and petite internecine struggles for dominance. As a result, some opposition voters had frequently been disappointed and abstained from voting altogether, while others would “waste” their votes by supporting minor parties which eventually would not make it into the Parliament. Under the proportional D’Hondt electoral system in Montenegro, such “wasted votes” would primarily go to the strongest party, i.e. the DPS. It was thus in the interest of the DPS to encourage and instigate rivalries and divisions within the opposition, and it had indeed been skillfully doing so for the past three decades.

This time, however, the very diverse Montenegrin opposition managed to organize themselves into three relatively ideologically homogenous coalitions: the conservative, right-wing, pro-SPC “For the Future of Montenegro”; the centrist, moderate, youthful “Peace is Our Nation”; and the liberal, civic, progressive “Black on White”. These three coalitions, which brought together close to twenty political parties, citizen groups and NGOs, presented the opposition voters, as well as the disappointed supporters of the DPS and usual abstainers, with quite a diverse choice. The tactical decision by the three groups to compete in the election separately rather than under one single banner may have encouraged some of their respective voters to turn out, since a “grand coalition” which would have included, for example, both religious conservatives and pro-LGBT advocates, might not have been palatable for some.  What also made this election unusual was that the three opposition groups did not attack each other at all on the campaign trail but were instead all going hard after the DPS. The ruling party thus found itself on the defense on three different fronts: its efforts to nationalize the SPC’s property (the main focus of barrage from the “For the Future of Montenegro” bloc); sowing divisions in society and turning ethnic groups against each other (the main focus of criticism by the “Peace is Our Nation” alliance); and corruption and organized crime (the main line of attack by the “Black on White” coalition).

The three groups made it clear that none of them would cooperate with the DPS after the election, thus giving voters a clear indication that they would collaborate only with each other. With the COVID-19 pandemic and limited large gatherings, the campaign was largely conducted through TV and online. The opposition’s videos, which were generally creative, well-produced and superior to the DPS’s, largely “hit the right spot”.  With all opposition parties running in one of the three groups, no opposition votes were “wasted” this time, hence depriving the DPS of the “bonus” which it would usually rely on thanks to the D’Hondt formula. Consequently, the three groups received 41 seats in the 81-seat Parliament (27 – “For the Future of Montenegro”; 10 – “Peace is Our Nation”; 4 – “Black on White”), while the DPS won 30. The remaining 10 seats were taken by the two small social-democratic parties (which had at different times partnered with the DPS), and the Bosniak/Muslim and Albanian national minority lists.

The Croat national minority seat. Over the past 15 years, the sole national political party of the Croat minority in Montenegro, the Croatian Civic Initiative (HGI), had one seat in Parliament, and was traditionally allied with the ruling DPS. The HGI, as the only national party of the Croats, needed to pass the special 0.35% threshold in order to receive the seat for the Croat minority. Shortly before the 2020 election, however, another Croat party – Croatian Reform Party (HRS) – was created and then competed in the election. The two parties – the HGI and the HRS – in the end split the Croat minority vote and neither passed 0.35%. As a result, the DPS could no longer count on one seat of its “traditional” coalition partner – the HGI, which, in the end, helped deny the DPS even a theoretical possibility of assembling the 41-seat majority in the Parliament. 

COVID-19. The novel coronavirus pandemic has not spared Montenegro. During the “first wave” in March-April 2020, the authorities imposed strict lockdowns, keeping both the numbers of infections and deaths down. By mid-May, Montenegro proudly dubbed itself the first “corona free” country in Europe.  However, as elsewhere in the world, these gains in public health came at a detriment to the economy. As the summer season kicked in, the Montenegrin authorities cautiously opened the country’s borders to a number of countries, cognizant of the fact that tourism represents between 25% and 30% of the national GDP. The borders, however, remained closed towards several key markets, including Russia, Serbia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, officially because of the worrying epidemiological situations in these countries. Despite these measures (or, as some argue, because of the “premature” opening of the borders to some countries), the “second wave” of the pandemic swamped Montenegro by mid-June, and is still underway, with both confirmed cases and casualties many times higher than those seen in the spring. The number of tourists who did come to Montenegro amounted to no more than 20% of the 2019 figures, directly affecting thousands of citizens living off tourism, primarily on the coast, and, indirectly making a serious dent in the state revenues through VAT and tourist tax collection.

COVID-19 arguably played a role in two more ways. While the authorities admirably, even if strictly, managed the situation in the spring, in the summer they started to show double standards and a much laxer approach. For example, some of the pro-SPC processions were banned and their participants, including clergy, arrested (because they were breaking the official health guidance), whereas other gatherings of pro-government groups or some big events on the coast were tolerated. Large swathes of the population started to view the Government’s handling of the pandemic as inadequate and politically biased, and the faith in the state institutions further eroded. Some of this displeasure may have translated into anti-DPS votes on 30 August.

Due to the coronavirus-related travel and quarantine restrictions across Europe, many Montenegrin nationals who live in Western Europe and would normally come to the country to vote did not make it this time. In the past, the DPS has been alleged to have organized charter flights, or provided free tickets, from places such as Luxembourg or Germany, flying to Montenegro (and back) hundreds, if not thousands, of its supporters. In 2020, with all the travel and quarantine restrictions in place, these numbers appear to have been significantly lower and thus likely contributed to the lower vote total for the ruling party.

Counterintuitively, the pandemic did not decrease the turnout on the election day. On the contrary, with close to 77% of eligible voters showing up at polling stations (or voting by letter), this election saw the highest turnout since the historical 2006 independence referendum. Some also point out to the fact that this was the first election that took place with the new Labour Law in place, which stipulates that shops, supermarkets and malls must be closed on Sundays. The argument goes that a number of people working in retail (a large percentage of the Montenegrin workforce) thus had time to actually go and vote as they had a day off (30 August was a Sunday).

Corruption scandals. While corruption, organized crime and incompetence of the authorities are not new ills in Montenegro, in recent years additional light has been shed on them, and Montenegro’s Western partners started to place additional emphasis on these issues. For example, the European Union has described corruption in Montenegro as “endemic”; Transparency International has given Montenegro an unenviable 66th place on its 2019 Corruption Perception Index; while the Freedom House in its latest report has downgraded Montenegro from “free” to “partly free”. Thanks to the relatively buoyant and diversified media scene in the country and wide access to the Internet, most Montenegrins could learn, in real time, about the falling standing of their country in the international arena. Anecdotal evidence of the immense wealth accumulated by Đukanović, his family, and the ruling elite around them has been abundant for years. The abject failure (or unwillingness) of state institutions, primarily prosecutors, the police and courts, to actively and independently look into the origins of such wealth has become a subject of both sarcastic ridicule and bitter frustration among the citizenry, whose standard of living was at best stagnating in recent years. 

The media also helped shed light on a number of scandals and affairs involving the ruling DPS. Among those that have stood out in recent years have been: “The Recording”, an audio in which a DPS functionary heading the Employment Bureau argues for handing out jobs along party lines, thus securing votes for the ruling party; “The List”, which has shown that the DPS has access to the personal data of citizens which should be accessible only to the Interior Ministry and not to any political party; and “The Envelope”, a video recording showing a Montenegrin tycoon giving an envelope with almost 100,000 euros to the then Mayor of Podgorica, a high-ranking DPS functionary, for the purpose of financing the DPS political campaign. The last scandal led to a series of civil protests under the motto “Resist”, which brought out tens of thousands of citizens to the streets throughout 2019. These popular protests demanded that a government of national unity be formed with the goal of organizing first democratic and fair election. While the “Resist” protest movement gradually subsided, its massive energy partially transformed into the pro-SPC processions which followed soon afterwards.

Just days before the 30 August election, another audio recording became public, in which a local-level DPS functionary in Podgorica blatantly conditioned a young applicant for the Army of Montenegro to first demonstrate her commitment to the party before she could be considered for the job. The higher echelons of the DPS, including the Minister of Defense, claimed not to know the local functionary, but did not deny the authenticity of the recording. For many in the general public it was yet another proof of the clientelist system established by the DPS, in which supporters and voters of the ruling party are given a preference when applying for jobs in state institutions, enterprises, and even the Army, while everyone else tends to be viewed with suspicion, until or unless they “repent” and pledge to vote for the DPS. It is hard to tell if this latest scandal, which surfaced on 19 August 2020, was the proverbial “last drop”, but it certainly reinforced the perception of corruption, nepotism, and illegal pressure on citizens on how to vote. At the same time, the DPS’s “foot soldiers”, like the functionary caught on tape, might have gotten cold feet after seeing how the party leadership “washed their hands” of the event in question. These lower-level functionaries might have become more concerned about being filmed, taped, and exposed in the media, with no longer being able to count on the omnipotent party to bail them out.

Former insiders. For a party that has been in power for 30 years, the Democratic Party of Socialists has had surprisingly few internal struggles or schisms. The main split happened in 1997/1998, when a fraction of the DPS decided to remain supportive of the then Serbian leader, Slobodan Milošević; whereas another, eventually victorious, fraction opted to turn its back on him and pursue what they dubbed a “pro-Western” path.  Ever since that split 23 years ago, the party has not experienced significant turbulences or dissent. Its critics argue that it is the sheer interest of the ruling elite that keep the party together, given that the DPS has modified its ideology a number of times over the past three decades.

Still, three prominent individuals who had either been in the party or by its side for years, have in recent times been pushed out of power or have left by themselves. And these three have started to be very vocal against the party. One, a wealthy businessman, banker and a long-lasting financier of the party, fell out with Đukanović, self-exiled to London and started to shed light on some of the corrupt practices, including the aforementioned scandal with “The Envelop”. Another, one of the founders of the party and its deputy leader for more than two decades, and a long-term Speaker of the Parliament, was convicted in court of organized crime and corruption in his hometown of Budva, the wealthiest town on the coast. He has since fled to Belgrade, Serbia, where he is allegedly receiving medical care while not being extradited to Montenegro. Days before the election, the former Speaker gave a lengthy interview to the aforementioned businessman, opening up for the first time since his conviction and primarily complaining about “being betrayed” by Đukanović. He also indirectly pleaded with the voters to support the opposition and not the DPS, the party he had co-led for two and a half decades. Finally, the former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank, fired in 2018, has for more than two and a half years been protesting against her allegedly unfair dismissal, accusing the Governor (another high-ranking party official) of mobbing and the parliamentary (i.e. DPS) majority of illegally voting for her dismissal. The fact that these three former high-level insiders had had a true, unobstructed insight into the “wheelings and dealings” of the DPS over the years made it much harder for the ruling party to discredit them as just one more “unsubstantiated” attack.

It is impossible to comprehensively and definitively analyze the 30 August defeat of the Democratic Party of Socialists in several pages and only two weeks after the election. One can expect that the coming months and years will bring more in-depth studies on how this well-organized, well-funded, and sometimes ruthless political machine lost power in an election which they organized, and they expected to easily win. Having won all 10 parliamentary and 7 presidential elections since 1990, DPS’s defeat took most people by surprise. This analysis is one of the first attempts to “scratch the surface” and try to establish how and why this result occurred.

Whatever the cause(s), the important fact is that Montenegro has now joined the rest of Europe as a country in which an old government has been voted out in an election and is about to be replaced by a new government. It has to be borne in mind, nonetheless, that President Đukanović could still hypothetically try to obstruct the formation of a new government. We can hope that the President will, even if begrudgingly, accept the popular will and the fact that his party now belongs to the opposition. If that happens, the principle of changeability of government and transfer of power in Montenegro – a key pillar of any liberal democracy – will be established, which is a major step forward worth saluting.

B. Miladinovic holds a Master of Arts in Advanced International Studies (MAIS) from the Diplomatic Academy Vienna.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.


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