PODGORICA – The Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) has been in power in Montenegro for 30 years and is entering tomorrow’s parliamentary election politically weakened. Whether it will indeed have to step down in the coming weeks is still unknown.
Polls have been scarce in the course of the election campaign, but none of them showed DPS at or above 41% it won in 2016 election. The most prominent poll, carried out by CEDEM, showed it as still the largest party, but only at 35% (together with smaller coalition partners).
What could complicate the situation for the party of President Milo Đukanović is that the three pre-election coalitions following DPS in the polls have excluded the possibility of post-electoral cooperation.
“For the Future of Montenegro”, a coalition around the Democratic Front, made up of a variety of conservative soft EU-sceptical parties supporting closer ties with Serbia and often Russia is at 25% in CEDEM’s poll. “Peace is our Nation”, coalition around the pro-EU centrist Democratic Montenegro, is polling at 16,5%, while the “Black on White” coalition around the progressive URA movement is predicted to win around 6% of the vote.
These three coalitions are described by the political science professor and a candidate of “Peace is our Nation” coalition Vladimir Pavićević in his op-ed for Vreme weekly as the true opposition to DPS and Đukanović, which have given up on attacking each other during the course of the campaign.
“There is no doubt that the turnout in the Montenegrin election this year will be high. The unpredictability of the outcome this time around will probably motivate a good part of those who have been abstaining so far to vote”, Pavićević wrote.
However, even though the three opposition coalitions will jointly probably end up with more MPs than DPS, the situation could get even more complicated. Social Democratic Party (SDP) and its breakaway party the Social Democrats (SD) are both polling above the 3% threshold needed to enter the parliament. National minority – Bosniak, Croat and Albanian – parties, to which the threshold does not apply, will traditionally win several seats in the Assembly.
Social Democratic Party has been in coalition with DPS for 18 years, until 2016. Part of its MPs then formed the Social Democrats party, remaining in the coalition even after the 2016 election.
According to Jovana Marović, Executive Director of the Politikon Network and BiEPAG member, for now, the ruling DPS can count on the support of minority parties, the current coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SD), and probably the former coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SDP).
The formation of an anti-DPS coalition government supported by the Democratic Front, Democratic Montenegro and URA is, therefore, a possibility, but DPS could still manage to hang on to the parliamentary majority, with SDP playing the role of a kingmaker.
Even if the government is formed without DPS, the situation will be far from straightforward. Firstly, the ideological differences among the opposition would probably get in the way. And secondly, Milo Đukanović’s presidential mandate expires only in 2023, with a constitutionally possible, but unlikely, option of the parliament removing him before.
“Considering the differences between the opposition parties, it is to be expected that there will be disagreements during the eventual exercise of power, but considering that this would potentially be the first time that someone other than DPS forms the government, I believe it would be challenging even without those significant differences”, emphasises Jovana Marović.
She adds, however, that there is no disagreement regarding the EU membership goal, even with the Democratic Front in the picture, and a change of government could have a positive impact on meeting commitments in the negotiation process.
Identity issues and usual election irregularities dominate the campaign
What has arguably dealt the most serious blow to DPS leading up to the election is the highly controversial Law on Freedom of Religion, with a clause requiring religious communities to prove the ownership of their property acquired before 1918.
Serbian Orthodox Church, the largest religious organisation in the country, has accused the DPS of trying to seize its property and has been leading protest processions since the adoption of the Law in December. The most senior figure of the SOC in the country, Metropolitan Amfilohije, has said that, for the first time in his life, he will be voting in an election.
“Identity issues dominate the political landscape, so essentially this campaign is not significantly different from the previous ones. On the one hand, since the adoption of the Law on Freedom of Religion, the DPS has been playing on the card that the values on which Montenegro is based are endangered and that these elections are another referendum that should strengthen the pillars of the independent and pro-Western country. Such messages are counterproductive, they are contributing to tensions in the long run, and further polarize an already deeply divided society”, says Jovana Marović.
She adds that, on the other hand, the opposition also contributes to tensions and divisions, as, for example, again as expected, an important part of the “For the Future of Montenegro” coalition’s campaign is controversy over the Law on Freedom of Religion, which affects the national and religious feelings of citizens.
“Therefore, the responsibility for deepening the division lies with this coalition, i.e. primarily the Democratic front (DF)”, says Marović, concluding that all opposition parties put the rule of law and democracy in the forefront, but primarily as a critique of the government, and not so much in the form of promoting their own programs.
Before the controversy around the Law on Religion, however, there was the “Envelope Affair”, which triggered large protests in the first half of 2019. The affair involved the proof of vote-buying in the previous election cycle, which the protesters described as a symptom of the larger scale of corruption in the country.
The DPS is also probably having a harder time promoting its successful governing in the context of COVID-19, which is having a detrimental influence on Montenegro’s tourism-based economy, as well as a weak record on EU integrations, having opened all negotiating chapter but closing only three in the eight years of negotiating.
The newest Freedom House’s Nations in Transit report classifies Montenegro as a hybrid regime, and the Center for Democratic Transition (CDT) has noted the irregularities of the electoral process in its preliminary report.
“In the period observed, the media reported on the allegations of political parties about pressure on voters, vote-buying and party abuses in the area of employment, which the competent authorities should investigate as soon as possible. Also, there is a ground for a case on the occasion of an audio recording published in the media, in which an activist of the ruling party talks about party suitability as a condition of employment in the Army”, CDT reported.
It also noted that the most parties have adapted their activities to the circumstances of COVID-19, so the campaign is dominated by media presentations, advertising on portals and social media, and events that bring together a limited number of participants.
“In a situation when significantly fewer promotional events are organized in the campaign, the so-called office campaigning became markedly visible. It is understandable that the government is also working during the election campaign and that there are reasons and reasons in it that are justified for visits to municipalities and organization of events. However, a large number of events in this election campaign cannot withstand the test of public interest”, CDT concluded.
As Jovana Marović stresses, it should be also taken into account that the outcome of the elections will be influenced by the uneven playing field and the institutional advantage that the DPS enjoys.