By Olivera Komar (University of Montenegro)
The next Montenegrin Parliamentary elections have been scheduled for October 16th. However, as it looks right now – they will bring no significant surprises. Quarter of century long incumbency of Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) will most probably continue without any significant challenges. It did not look that way just ten months ago when anti-DPS protests started to transform from a very limited group lead by Democratic front (DF) to much larger civic upset. But then, as suddenly as it started everything fell apart followed by a tragic mistake by one of the leaders of the protests who intentionally or not tried to turn it into a violent conflict. The new chance presented itself just a few months later when Social democratic party left the government provoking vote of confidence. Once again, the life line to DPS was provided by one of the parties in the opposition – Positive Montenegro. Djukanovic, leader of DPS transformed this “set back” into a major strategic win by inviting the rest of opposition to the Government in order to ensure credibility of electoral process.
We should go a few steps back in order to properly explain current pre election setting in Montenegro. First of all, even though there are several important ingredients of DPS’s everlasting rule, one is specifically relevant: the main political cleavage in the country continues to be ethnic (though the term itself could be discussed because of the political nature of this ethnic division). Namely, according to the latest 2011 Census there are approximately 45% of people in Montenegro that declare themselves as Montenegrins and 29% as Serbs. The rest of population comprises of minorities such are Albanians, Bosniaks, Muslims and Croats. This ethnic division quite perfectly translates into informal political blocks. Basically this means that the “line” between the Serbs and others is rarely crossed. Not only that people of other nationalities do not vote for parties that openly or not so much openly stand for Serbian politics in Montenegro, but they even shy away from parties that communicate willingness to form coalition with such parties. This gives the ruling party a comfortable and dominant position within population of Montenegrins and minorities and leaves opposition with limited options. Taking advantage of its long incumbency and privileged access to public resources DPS presents itself as invincible party that provides for the people. Overwhelming corruption, patronage, lack of accountability and monopolizing and capturing the state go hand in hand with such position. Many voters are not happy but they do not believe that anything would or could change so they vote pragmatically.
On the other side there is opposition. Mathematically, it could only provide a decent challenge for DPS if it could cross the main political cleavage and unite anti government sentiment on both sides of the ethnic fence. However, this would even theoretically be impossible with Democratic front whose open anti NATO and pro Russian rhetoric gives chills to Montenegrin population regardless of their anti – DPS sentiment. One of the ideas that entertained the public for a while was the possibility of the centrist civic coalition between several other opposition political parties – United Reformist Action URA, Social-democratic party (SDP), Democrats, Demos and Social People’s Party (SNP). All five parties are situated in the left center of ideological spectrum but they are on different sides of ethnic division. SDP and URA mainly attract Montenegrin and SNP mainly attracts Serbian voters. It gets a bit complicated when it comes to “ethnic” flavor of Democrats and Demos. It is common perception that these parties (or at least most of its leadership) lean towards pro Serbian politics. This is especially true having in mind that both parties were created by splitting with pro Serbian parties (Democratic front and SNP respectfully). However, their initial record was rather neutral so they attracted voters of both Montenegrin and Serbian ethnicity (according to latest polls, 40% of Democrats’ voters declare themselves as Montenegrins and almost 50% of voters of Demos). Having all said in mind, coalition between all or most of these parties could have brought the idea of bridging the main national cleavage whose existence in fact makes it easy for DPS to win each election. However, one must be cautious with optimism, because even this kind of coalition would not gather enough support for formation of the government – it would need post election support from either Democratic front or DPS. Democratic front is a deal breaker for pro Montenegrin civic opposition so its coalition potential is non-existing. On the other side, theoretically at least, coalition with significantly weakened DPS would enable gradual transition from predominant party system towards more accountable political system.
However, this scenario is highly unlikely to happen during next elections. SNP and Democrats have already rejected the idea of such a coalition at its very beginning. Demos is expected to do the same. All three parties will as it shows be pursuing Serbian votes. News about prominent members of some of these parties requesting official communication in Cyrillic alphabet is an early sign that they have started flirtation with Serbian sentiments. However, having in mind the composition of Demos and Democrats voters and the fact that almost half of them identify as Montenegrins, this does not sound like a prudent tactic.
This leaves SDP and URA which kind of misses the point of bridging the gap and takes away the potential of the idea. So, once again, there is nothing new in Montenegro. Voting for DPS presents itself as the most viable option for majority of the voters. “They will win anyway”, so you need to position yourself on the “right” side if you want to come in turn for the perks, privileges or even what is righteously yours in any near future.
The role of international community is especially interesting. As long as Democratic front pushes for its radical anti-NATO and pro Russian politics, the “west” will look for a reliable partner in Montenegro. With completely shattered opposition, DPS remains the most promising one. Corruption and misuse of public resources, patronage, coercion even – those all remain domestic “concerns” that international community is worried about but not as much as the prospect of losing stability in the region. And once again, Djukanovic has great talent or instincts to present himself as the most reliable partner who says all the rights words. When he called for the Government of electoral trust in May, allowing opposition to enter government on different levels (including taking over positions Minister of Interior, Minister of Agriculture, Minister of Labor and Social Care and Minister of Finance) international community’s especially European Union community was charmed. In the same move he put part of the opposition that actually threatens him in an impossible situation. If they did enter the government they could not really “repair” the system and prevent misuse of the public resources for elections in such a short period of time, but they would legitimize the process by their very being part of the government. If they refused, they would lose both international support and support by their own members who hoped for some participation in spoils. What they did was in fact the worst possible option: they dragged negotiations till May leaving less time for any real actions, they divided so part of opposition entered and part did not enter the government and once they entered they allowed themselves beginners mistakes. At the end of the day, Djukanovic and DPS were the only subjects that so far benefited from Government of electoral trust.
So what to expect next October having in mind this setting? In the current stale atmosphere with no new ideas, no optimism, no ideological mobilization that elections usually provoke the events are about to unfold as started. Democratic front is expected to continue dictating the pace of the campaign with its radical agenda which apart from mobilizing radical Serbian votes to their side helps DPS once again present itself to the voters (and international community) as the only capable western frontier. DPS will probably continue to use vast public resources to tackle as many voters on the ground. The rest of the opposition will individually try to take what is left hoping for post election chance to enter government. There are three main pillars of DPS’ invincibility: ethnic cleavage which divides the opposition, unlimited access to public resources and image of invincibility. Until the opposition seriously endangers any of these pillars, nothing new is to be expected.
Photo source: http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/pm-djukanovic-reshuffles-his-cabinet-in-montenegro-04-28-2016