By Nemanja Batrićević (University of Montenegro)
On 30th of August 2020, Montenegro held its fifth and the most polarizing election since the Referendum in May of 2006. With pre-election polling data showing the predominant Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) at the ‘historical minimum’ (ranging from 35% to 40%), the opposition, organized around three ideologically congruent party lists, was never more convinced of its electoral win. With respect to the main political issues, Montenegro once more turned into a ‘perfect laboratory’ for the study of overlapping cleavages. The well-established divide between proponents and opponents of Montenegrin statehood/nationhood gained yet another layer – State vs. Church.
While the most radical segment of the opposition does not hide theocratic tendencies, it would be only correct to situate the latest electoral campaign within the existing cleavage structure. The familiar pattern of party competition and coalition-building emerged, effectively translating religious issue into the political struggle between the Montenegrin State and the Serbian Church. The polarizing atmosphere forced political parties ‘back’ to the referendum trenches, this time with one crucial difference – the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) was now openly mobilizing against the ruling DPS. With the upcoming population census in 2021, both sides were heavily focused on boundaries of ethnic categories. On the one hand, the DPS politicized the issue of church, at least partially, with purpose of fostering reduction in the level of ambiguity between Montenegrin and Serbian national identity. On the other hand, the SPC engaged in outright attempt to blur boundaries between the two, by strongly appealing to Orthodoxy and shared cultural symbols.
Setting the Stage: The Law on Freedom of Religion
The election campaign effectively started already on 30th of November of 2019, at eighth party congress of the DPS, when party leader, Milo Đukanović, officially declared DPS’s desire to re-establish Montenegrin Orthodox Church (CPC). While many were puzzled by the former-Communists’ aspiration to pursue such a political goal, the intention was clear. The status of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church is the last missing piece of the identity puzzle, without which consolidation of Montenegrin national identity may remain a distant goal.
The formalization of this desire came a month later, when majority in the Parliament approved government’s bill – the Law on Freedom of Religion. If implemented, the law would require Serbian Church in Montenegro to register like other religious communities, and officially become a part of the legal system. In practice, this would mean that SPC would have to start paying taxes and register their employees. However, from the perspective of the church, the most problematic part of the law concerns articles that grant state the right to reclaim property illegally appropriated after the so called “Podgorica Assembly of 1918”, when Montenegrin state and autocephalous Montenegrin Orthodox Church were abolished in the annexation by the Serbia. According to the law at the time, no state property could have been legally transferred to other organization without the permission of the existing institution. In practice, this means that, once monasteries and churches built by the Montenegrin state prior to the 1918 are returned to state’s ownership, other religious communities would be able to use them to practice religious services, including Montenegrin Orthodox Church. This would effectively end both spiritual and financial monopoly of the SPC over Orthodox population and lucrative properties used to maintain political support.
Expectedly, the SPC declined registration and has engaged in massive political protest against the law and the government. From January to March, dozens of thousands of church supporters have been protesting across Montenegro, assisted by the pro-Serbian opposition parties and backed by the Serbian government. While the ‘first wave’ of the COVID-19 pandemic initially stopped the protests, as election were approaching the they became frequent again. In weeks preceding the election, highest representatives of the SPC have publicly invited voters to vote against parties who ‘dared to attack Christ’.
With the SPC in the electoral arena, the DPS has finally met his match.
Coalition-building and Major Dilemmas
In terms of political dynamics within traditionally fractionalized Montenegrin opposition, these elections were a turning point. Notwithstanding failed attempt to create a single unified party list, complete absence of within-opposition attacks was evident. This ‘non-aggression’ pact was facilitated by the SPC, which supported both large pro-Serbian coalitions and produced long-waited consolidation of the opposition block. The Democratic Front has merged with number of minor parties (e.g. United Montenegro and Montenegro Proper) to form wider coalition “For the Future of Montenegro”, while Democrats of Montenegro formed “Peace is Our Nation” together with Demos. Nominally pro-Montenegrin United Reformist Action (URA), participated separately in election but has openly flirted with the idea of entering into the post-election coalition with pro-Serbian parties, under the condition of forming an “expert government”.
It is worth noting that pro-Montenegrin Socialist Democratic Party (SDP), although in the opposition, was not treated as such by neither side. Namely, due to the fact that they supported the government’s law, the rest of the opposition has referred to them as ‘the Trojan horse’ ready to return to the government. Their treatment clearly demonstrates almost perfect restructuring of the party system along the positions held back in 2006.
Yet, there was plenty of room for surprise in this election. Knowing that the DPS has lost portion of its support among those who are devoted members of the Serbian Church in Montenegro, the major dilemma of this election was whether this loss can be recompensed with votes gained from the ‘disappointed Montenegrin’ voters who have typically abstained or voted other smaller parties. Second, for the first time ever the Croat Civic Initiative (HGI), traditional partner of the DPS, had to compete against another Croat ethnic party – Croat Reformist Party (HRS). Namely, affirmative action grants Croats chance enter the parliament with only 0.35% of the overall vote. In practice, this allowed government to obtain their seat at significantly “lower price” and solidify multiethnic coalition. Finally, given the worrisome situation with COVID-19 on one hand, and massive mobilization on the other, the turnout could significantly affect the results.
The results of 2020 Montenegrin election were, without a doubt – historic. The three-decade long predominance of the DPS have come to an abrupt end. In total, 410.263 citizens casted a ballot (76.68%). If indeed, these elections were a ‘second referendum’, as government continuously claimed, then Montenegrin state lost. While the DPS remains the largest party in the Montenegrin political system with 35.06% of votes (30 seats), they are unlikely candidates for the next government. Together with other parties from the former independence movement (Socialdemocrats – 4.10% (3 seats), Social Democratic Party – 3.14% (2 seats), the Bosniak’s Party 3.98% (3 seats), and the two Albanian ethnic parties (2 seats)), they control 40 out of 81 seats. The current government fell short, at least partially, due to the split in Croat national minority, which will now have no representatives in the parliament. Instead, the new government is likely to be composed by coalition ‘For Future of Montenegro’ (32.55 %, 27 seats), the ‘Peace is Our Nation’ coalition (12.55%, 10 seats), and United Reformist Action (5.53% (4 seats).
Yet, in the spirit of this article’s title, the near future in Montenegro is utterly uncertain. Despite the success in defeating the DPS, one can expect that stark differences between opposition parties to resurface again. While they may principally agree to leave painfully divisive church issue aside, the programmatic and cultural differences will be a serious obstacle moving forward. To negotiate ‘expert government’ between pro-Western, liberal-green platform of URA and pro-Russian, hardcore conservative platform of the Democratic Front will be a daunting task. Furthermore, it is not a secret that, in ever-troubling region of the Western Balkans, both EU and NATO would prefer not to have a government as susceptible to the Russian influence. Regardless of the government’s composition, the overall course of the Montenegro will greatly depend on the DPS’s ability to reform itself. Put simply, in order to secure Montenegro’s Western course, strengthening of the statehood and national identity should not come at the expense of turning a blind eye to the corruption.