European Western Balkans

Montenegrin democracy in times of coronavirus

Montenegro Flag; Photo: Pixabay / Sergei Petrov

In their bestseller book ‘How Democracies Die’, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have argued that since the 1970s, democracies have only rarely disappeared via armed coups, but much more eroded and died slow deaths. The current coronavirus pandemic offers an unprecedented opportunity for a power grab and undermining of democracy, i.e., for precisely the kind of development that Levitsky and Ziblatt have described. This is, in particularly, the case with the unconsolidated democracies with weak safeguards, such as the countries of the Western Balkans, including Montenegro. Yet if we analyze the political dynamic and processes since the outbreak of the pandemic in Montenegro, there are no signs that the government is using the current public health crisis as cover to seize new powers that have little to do with the outbreak or to crack down on dissent. As the matter of fact, one could detect several positive developments.

First of all, Montenegro has been dealing very successfully with the pandemic and the state has demonstrated that it possesses the capacities to successfully deal even with the greatest challenges when there is a political will for it. The pandemic also prompted a widespread solidarity and the sense of the unity in the society. Citizens and legal entities started donating money for the purchase of necessary medical equipment. The money has been donated by individuals, the famous Montenegrin athletes, the state officials, the state owned and privately owned companies as well as politicians from both the ruling and opposition parties. In line with this predominant mood in the society even the key media, which are known for their partisanship, have been promoting professional opinions with no sensationalism or spreading panic in their programs.

Yet the coronavirus pandemic has also revealed the weaknesses of the political system. In the beginning of the crisis the majority of political actors – both in the government and the opposition – have shown a high level of maturity and sense of responsibility. They all called for setting aside political misunderstandings and divisions in order to confront the challenges in harmony and unity, and were united in the stance not to use this pandemic for political, party or any private and group interests. In other words, the extraordinary shock that the coronavirus pandemic brought seemed to have the potential to mitigate the toxic political polarization and to help changing the course toward greater national solidarity and functionality. Coronavirus is the “common enemy” that does not distinguish between the ruling and opposition parties and many studies have shown that strong, enduring relational patterns often become more susceptible to change after some type of major shock destabilizes them.

However, in the recent weeks much more dissent on the Montenegrin political scene could be observed as the political actors returned to the ‘business as usual’. It is, thus, again demonstrated that a national identity based toxic polarization of the Montenegrin party system is even in these extraordinary times an obstacle for the national unity.

In addition to it, this extraordinary situation led to an accumulation of power in the hands of the executive and the curtailing of political and civil liberties on massive scale, which is unprecedented in the peacetime. Albeit being justified, these mere facts demand a more active role of the parliament, which was only recently provided (since the outbreak of the pandemic the parliament convened for the first time on 22 April). Particularly in this critical moment the parliament should be able to perform its oversight role and the opposition should be included in the decision-making process as much as possible.

Amid the excellent managing of the crisis the ruling parties are so far the clear political beneficiaries of the Coronavirus pandemic. According to a poll conducted from April 6-9, Montenegro’s ruling coalition is currently supported by over 55%. This is even more important if one bears in mind that the next parliamentary elections should take place in October. However, these are extraordinary and very unpredictable times. Half a year is a long time in politics, which is now even more the case with all uncertainties around the Coronavirus. But one thing is certain – it is just the matter of time before the voters start feeling the economic consequences of the pandemic and they will then look for someone to blame. In this process, the voters often do not behave rationally. Just remember that in 1916 presidential election Woodrow Wilson lost the state of New Jersey, where he had once been governor, which almost cost him the White House. And all this because the voters blamed him for the shark attacks that had a devastating effect on the economy of the state.

The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions of the OSCE. The OSCE is not responsible for the content and for any inaccuracies, misinterpretations or fabrications possibly contained in the paper.

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