More than electing Podgorica’s mayor

With mayoral elections approaching on July 19th, splits between the two old governing coalition partners – the predominant Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) – demonstrate that the stakes are high in Montenegro’s political party dynamics.

By Milena Milošević and Apostolis Karabairis

With the election of new mayors taking place in Montenegro on 19th July, the two old governing coalition partners – the predominant Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) – will again have to face their strained relations at the local-level in the capital, Podgorica. What began with separate candidate lists in May 2010’s local elections, and escalated with disagreements regarding several city bills, has now peaked with the SDP’s refusal to vote for the renewal of the mandate of Miomir Mugoša, the incumbent mayor and DPS candidate. Recent developments within the DPS add another important variable to the crisis.

Miomir Mugoša is a prominent member of the DPS and the mayor of Podgorica since 2000. Although he became known for his contribution to the development of the city, he is also regarded as a controversial personality. His strong personal stamp of authority in the way he runs the city has obviously induced harsh opposition from SDP deputies in the city assembly, who had decided not to back him for a new term already by last year’s municipal elections.

The issue, per se, would not seem of such importance, had it not been for the respective parties’ past records and their partnership in the state-level coalition government. Indeed, relations between the DPS and the SDP have been so cordial that it has been analytically meaningful to regard them as the one party. Together they have formed the core of every ruling coalition in Montenegro since 1998. Therefore, the distinct line of SDP in the capital municipality shook the peaceful waters of their relations and heated up once again the debate over a possible spill over of the DPS-SDP coalition crack all the way to the national level.

Despite risking losing its loyal partner, the DPS eventually endorsed Mugoša again. Being the dominant party of Montenegro, it has no fear of staying out of office anyway. No other combination of parties can secure the necessary support to form a functional government without the DPS, either at the national or local level, especially since polarisation over independence has started to fade out.

The formally lengthy leadership of Đukanović, the statesman associated with the resumption of Montenegrin statehood in 2006, ended when he stepped down in December 2010. Although he remains the most influential personality in Montenegrin politics, his formal absence from top state positions might facilitate a consensus between the DPS and the Serbia-inclined opposition parties. Since the DPS-SDP coalition in Podgorica is clinically dead, several opposition parties have queued up to take over the SDP’s place in the city assembly majority. The Democratic Serbian Party (DSS) and the People’s Party (NS) have already signalled their willingness to support the re-election of Mugoša.

The only way that the DPS may lose power is in the case of a major split within its ranks. This possibility is not as unrealistic as it might have been at the time of 2010 local elections. Already at the end of 2010, a few top DPS officials had been arrested – including Rajko Kuljača, mayor of the cosmopolitan seaside resort Budva, and Dragan Marović, brother of DPS strongman and former president of State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, Svetozar Marović. Allegedly, Marović has recently written a letter to Đukanović, threatening to retreat from the DPS and open confrontation with it should the prosecution of his close associates continues. Such a development may turn the Montenegrin party scene upside down, particularly if Marović’s move is followed by some other DPS officials, known for their tendency to act more independently. The first on the list is Montenegrin president, Filip Vujanović, whose stance on identity issues and friendliness toward Serbia does not always follow the official party line.

Both Marović and Vujanović are political heavyweights whose close alignment with Đukanović has set the tone in Montenegrin politics since at least 1997, when Podgorica started distancing itself from the Milošević regime. A possible split within the Montenegrin governing elite would stir-up passions and facilitate splinter moves within the broader context of party system realignment that it would initiate.

In this light, the decision to let down their partners from the SDP and stand -up for Mugoša reflects the DPS’s choice of intra-party unity over good inter-party relations within the coalition. Mugoša, too, was one of the old-guard members who were recently excluded from the DPS presidency; allegedly because their inclusion would not satisfy the criteria for gender and territorial representation. However, his candidacy for a new term as the capital’s mayor can be viewed as an example of the effort to ease the concerns of and attempt to compensate those who were degraded in the party hierarchy.

The dynamics of the election of Podgorica’s mayor could well serve as a power experiment. The capital’s municipal assembly is a miniature of the state parliament; the seat distribution is roughly analogous. Conclusions drawn from the Podgorica case can therefore signal future developments at the national level. If the DPS’s will in Podgorica is upheld, despite the associated costs, it will further consolidate the role of the DPS as the single dominant actor in Montenegrin politics. The SDP’s failure to prevent Mugoša’s re-election will likely force it to have second thoughts before trying to challenge a DPS decision at the national level. The situation may still reveal latent dynamics and possibly pave the way for the transcending of existing political cleavages. A reshuffle of the parties along the political spectrum remains a possibility. Should such a reshuffle be accompanied by a major split within the DPS, the political scene would be radically different and the current balance of power irreversibly subverted.

Milena Milošević is a research assistant and Apostolis Karabairis a junior reseacher at the Athens Working Group: Transforming the Balkans, a programme of the Hellenic Centre for European Studies.

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