Election preview: Montenegro

Montenegro on Sunday becomes the fourth Balkan country in three months to hold parliamentary elections. Montenegro is not a big country – it is slightly more populous than Tasmania, with about a quarter of the area – but as a candidate for joining the European Union, its democratic institutions are under some scrutiny.

So far, they have not performed well. Things look OK on paper: the electoral system provides for nationwide D’Hondt proportional representation (with a 3% threshold, from which ethnic minority parties are exempt), and the last election, in 2016, saw nine parties win seats in parliament. The governing five-party coalition commands 42 of the 81 seats, representing fractionally under 50% of the vote.

But in other respects it looks uncomfortably like a one-party state. The same party – the post-communist Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) – has headed every government since the introduction of democracy in 1990. And throughout that time it has been led by one man: current president Milo Đukanović, who regardless of his official position (he has been prime minister four times and president twice) is universally seen as the one in charge.

Until 2006, Montenegro was part of a federation with Serbia, and relations with its much larger neighbor continue to dominate the political landscape. Đukanović presents this as a conflict between his pro-western orientation and the obscurantist, pro-Serbian (and therefore pro-Russian) approach of his opponents. This week he reportedly said that the choice in the election was “whether Montenegro should continue its EU integration or become a theocratic state.”

But single-person rule has brought all the usual problems: corruption, cronyism, violence against protesters, decline in press freedoms and links to organised crime. In reality you don’t have to be on Russia’s side to think that Đukanović has been there far too long and that it’s time for some sort of change.

Exactly what form that might take isn’t clear. The DPS won 41.4% of the vote in 2016, aided by the arrest of a group of alleged Russian coup plotters on election day. Recent polls put it in the mid-30s. It can generally count on the support of a group of ethnic minority parties (Albanian, Bosniak and Croat), for whom Serbian nationalism represents the primary threat; they will be worth another few points between them.

Beyond that things get difficult. Last time Đukanović got to a majority with the aid of the Social Democrats, who just cleared the threshold with 3.3%. (They are not to be confused with the Social Democratic Party, who had 5.2%; the two split over whether to continue supporting the government.) This time they may fall short, and even if they get back it will probably not be enough.

The main opposition is a centre-right to right-wing coalition called “For the Future of Montenegro”; it’s currently polling in the mid-20s. There’s also a centrist coalition called “Peace is Our Nation” with support in the mid-teens, and a more progressive group, United Reform Action, with another few points. It’s possible to imagine these diverse forces winning a majority and combining to oust Đukanović, but it’s hard to see them forming a stable government together.

It’s probably more likely that the DPS will manage to stay in power by luring one or more of the opposition parties into a deal. But it would be best for the country if the terms of such an arrangement include the early retirement of the president and a new generation of leadership.

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