European Western Balkans

Frontrunner in trouble: Montenegro to hold elections amidst political crisis and COVID-19 scare

Montenegro Flag; Photo: Pixabay / Sergei Petrov

High tensions, protests, deteriorating rule of law and freedom of the media, unresolved corruption affairs, but also a worsened epidemiological situation – that is how Montenegro, the frontrunner in EU integration in the Western Balkans, welcomes the parliamentary elections scheduled for August 30 by President Milo Đukanović.

As stated from his cabinet, Đukanović made the decision to call the elections on June 20th after he held consultations with representatives of parliamentary parties and coalitions, who responded to his invitation to set a date for the elections, with no opposition parties among them.

However, with the announcement of the elections, allegations about their unconstitutionality appeared, which is confirmed by the President of the Management Board of the Institute Alternativa based in Podgorica, Stevo Muk.

“By fully interpreting the relevant provisions of the Constitution of Montenegro and the Law on Election of Councillors and Representatives, it is indisputable that without shortening the mandate of the current convocation of the Assembly, elections cannot be held on August 30, because Montenegro will have “two assemblies”, i.e. two convocations of the Parliament during the period of 36 days (from October 1 to November 6). According to the Constitution of Montenegro, the mandate of an MP lasts for four years. Since the current convocation was constituted on November 7, 2016, the mandate of the current MPs in the Assembly lasts until November 6, 2020,” Muk points out.

He explains that if the elections were to be held on August 30, the mandates of the new members of parliament would have to be confirmed “within 30 days of the elections”, by October 1 at the latest, which means that the new parliament would be confirmed 36 days before the expiration of the mandate of the current convocation prescribed by the Constitution.

“There was no official reaction from the cabinet of President Đukanović to our publicly stated claims, and the key opposition parties did not problematize the date of calling the elections. It seems that they have reconciled with the fact that the elections will be held at the end of August,” said Muk.

Jovana Marović, Executive Director of the Politikon network, Podgorica-based think tank and a member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) agrees with Muk, saying that the legality (constitutionality) is disputable, because the elections cannot be called before the deadline, without the Assembly shortening its mandate before that.

“However, the legitimacy of that decision is strengthened by the fact that all opposition parties are preparing for the elections and and campaigns are ongoing,” Marović said.

Another problem is holding the elections in the midst of a growing coronavirus epidemic, with a number of severe restrictions on conducting a political election campaign.

Muk points out that it is especially important that the organization of political rallies in open public places is prohibited and that the gatherings are limited to a maximum of 40 individuals in open public places and to 20 people in closed spaces.

“We still do not have clear rules for conducting the election campaign, nor for conducting election actions on election day. It seems that even when it comes to formulating the announced rules, there is a lack of dialogue between the authorities and key opposition parties, which calls into question the already weak legitimacy of the elections. The opposition and several renowned civil society organizations estimated that we expect these elections in ever worse election conditions, with completely captured institutions”, states Muk.

Elections during the political crisis and rule of law worries

The elections are being held at a time of political crisis which erupted from the protests throughout Montenegro over the adoption of the disputed Law on Freedom of Religion which have been ongoing since December 2019.

However, another protests broke out in June, amidst the row over the opposition municipal government in Budva. The incidents in Budva are a continuation of political tensions from the beginning of June, when the councilor Stevan Džaković decided to join the then-opposition in the city (the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists at the national level and Montenegrin party) which created a new council majority that could change the local opposition authorities in Budva. Protests escalated when opposition politicians were arrested and police used tear gas to disperse the protesters.

Also, worrying reports of international organizations about the state of the rule of law in Montenegro were published this year.

Freedom House (FH) report “Nations in Transit”, a document which evaluates the state of democracy in 29 countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, published in May, showed that Montenegro, for the first time since 2003, is not a democracy, but a “government in transition or hybrid regime”, meaning that power is based on authoritarianism as a result of incomplete democratic change.

“For years, with increased state capture, abuse of power, and tactic of ruling by fear, Aleksandar Vučić in Serbia and Milo Đukanović in Montenegro have taken their states below the line – for the first time since 2003, they are no longer in the category of democracies among countries in transit,” reads the report.

Muk points out that Montenegro has made significant steps backwards in the field of democracy and the rule of law in the last four years, as evidenced by the reports of Freedom House, as well as a number of other international organizations.

“The government continues to control the public broadcaster, which has long since slipped into openly acting as a ruling party media, independent control agencies are filled with party staff, as well as the police and the prosecutor’s office. It remains to be seen what the appointment of the new director of the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption will bring, but experience teaches us that in these political circumstances, it is very difficult to change things for the better,” explains Muk.

Also, the latest Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom index, published in April, ranked Montenegro 105th out of 180 countries. Muk added that what particularly worries them is the continued restriction of freedom of expression, through state supervision of social media and numerous police and prosecutorial activities aimed at prosecuting citizens for open, satirical publications.

“The disputed provisions of the Criminal Law on ‘spreading panic’ and ‘insulting the state’ are used extensively, while protesters in Budva and Podgorica, but also in other places, faced detentions and abuse of police powers,” Muk points out.

However, despite the aforementioned problems with the rule of law, Montenegro opened the last negotiating chapter on June 30 which was seen in Montenegro as a positive signal coming from the EU. The Prime Minister of Montenegro, Duško Marković, visited the EU institutions on July 14, after the opening of the last chapter, and stated that the European perspective of Montenegro is quite certain.

“Strong messages were sent about that perspective and about the expectations that Montenegro will strongly continue its European integration, that it will respond to the current challenges and needs in that process, primarily in the field of strengthening the rule of law, which includes further judicial reform, the fight against crime and corruption and, of course, the issue of media freedom,” Marković said.

However, Jovana Marović of Politikon believes that the opening of the last negotiating chapter practically only means that Montenegro has fulfilled the conditions to start negotiations in this area of ​​the EU acquis.

“Progress in the negotiation process depends on the rule of law, but just opening a chapter, although formally a positive signal, does not mean much if there is no closure of chapters and if assessments of the situation in chapters 23 and 24 are continuously bad, which is the case with Montenegro. The reason for that are numerous unresolved affairs, politicized institutions, selective application of the law, extremely bad state of media freedom, conditions for holding elections that do not ensure a fair game and political corruption,” Marović pointed out.

She stated that Montenegro has been falling behind or stagnant for years in all parameters that affect the state of democracy and the rule of law, as shown by all relevant international reports that follow the country’s reforms, including the annual reports of the European Commission.

“Therefore, the opening of the last chapter can be another way for the EU to show that the enlargement process is still ‘alive’, despite the fact that apart from positive signals there is no specific shift in defining the instruments of the new methodology, nor it is clear how it will be applied to Montenegro, which accepted new, stricter conditions for negotiations in May,” explains Marović and adds that it is of special importance what the system of rewards and sanctions will look like in relation to the results in areas that affect the rule of law, i.e. their absence if the EU still intends to apply these instruments to the countries of the Western Balkans.

This article was published as part of the project “Civil society for good governance and anti-corruption in southeast Europe: Capacity building for monitoring, advocacy and awareness-raising (SELDI)” funded by the European Union.

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