By Slaven Zivkovic (DeFacto)
In the 2023 Montenegrin parliamentary elections, held on June 11th following the dissolution of the previous parliament, the Europe Now Movement (PES) emerged as the dominant political entity, securing a significant share of the seats (see Table 1). After extensive coalition negotiations, the PES formed a new government, with Milojko Spajić assuming the role of Montenegro’s Prime Minister. The voter turnout in these elections was only 56%, marking the lowest participation since Montenegro started conducting multiparty elections in 1990. Notably, this decline in voter engagement occurred amidst major political transformations, including the emergence of the Europe Now Movement as a key player.
The lead-up to the 2023 elections was marked by considerable turbulence. According to the 2023 EU Report on Montenegro, the political climate was fraught with tension and confrontational stances, leading to a deadlock in the political system. The country was governed for more than a year by a caretaker government lacking parliamentary support, and the parliament itself struggled to form any majority.
Since the pivotal August 2020 elections, which saw the long-ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) move into opposition, political unrest has been a constant in Montenegro. The first post-2020 government was initially formed at a Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) Monastery, later receiving parliamentary confirmation. This symbolically marked the period of a strong influence of one religious community in a heterogeneous society. Amidst widespread protests, Joanikije Mićović, a Serbian Orthodox Church Bishop in Montenegro, was enthroned in Cetinje. The Montenegrin Government, facing opposition from security ministry heads and agencies, controversially used force to ensure the enthronement. This government was eventually ousted by a no-confidence vote in the parliament, leading to a minority government led by Dritan Abazović, supported by the DPS. Despite opposition from coalition members and EU and NATO allies, Abazović signed a Basic Agreement with the Serbian Orthodox Church. Apart from that his government made a series of controversial decisions, leading to another no-confidence vote. However, his government remained in power for over a year post-vote, until it was replaced four months after the June elections. During the tenure of two governments (2020-2023) several high-profile cases of corruption and organized crime were initiated by the State Prosecution Office. These cases point to deep connections between organized crime groups and political structures, as well as top level judiciary and law enforcement (2023 EU Report on Montenegro). DPS was publicly accused of knowing and even participating in these schemes on the connection between state and organized crime.
Table 1: Official results of 2023 Parliamentary elections in Montenegro
In a significant political shift, Milo Đukanović lost in the second round of the presidential elections. Prior to his defeat, Đukanović had called for the snap June 2023 parliamentary elections. No party achieved a clear majority in these elections; PES and its allies won 24 seats, while DPS and its partners secured 21 seats in the 81-seat parliament, where a 41-seat majority is required to form a government.
The 2023 Montenegrin elections have several noteworthy aspects that merit detailed examination for a comprehensive understanding of the political dynamics. Following the elections, the Montenegrin research agency DeFacto Consultancy conducted a new wave of the Montenegro National Election Study (MNES) . This survey, involving 1200 respondents representative of Montenegro’s adult population and utilizing CAPI data collection, included questions from Module 6 of the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES). This blog presents some preliminary findings from the MNES study.
Populism dominated campaign
Populist tactics and messaging were prominent in the campaign rhetoric, significantly influenced by the Europe Now Movement. The party pledged to enact the “Europe Now 2” program upon assuming power, promising substantial economic reforms. These included raising the minimum wage to 700 EUR, the average salary to 1000 EUR, and the minimum pension to 450 EUR. Additionally, they proposed reducing the workday from 8 to 7 hours. However, the party seldom provided detailed plans or analyses of how these goals would be achieved or their potential impact on Montenegro’s economy.
Similar to the first “Europe Now 1” program, which involved redirecting contributions from the healthcare insurance to net salaries, thus increasing them. The initial program’s implementation contributed to the increased prices, higher inflation, and adverse effects on the Montenegrin public healthcare system.
Adding to the skepticism, Jakov Milatovic, the current President of Montenegro and Vice-President of the Europe Now Movement, admitted that he had never seen the “Europe Now 2” program, which outlined these ambitious economic changes. This admission raises questions about the internal coherence and transparency of the party’s policy-making process.
The campaign rhetoric shaped by the Europe Now Movement influenced other political parties, and numbers started ‘flying around’ during the campaign, where each promised higher salaries than their rivals. However, given that leaders from the Europe Now Movement, when they were ministers in Krivokapic’s government, implemented the first “Europe Now Program,” arguably, their promises were perceived as only tangible ones. There is no doubt that they set the tone on the topic, and significantly raised people’s expectations about income in Montenegro. Whether they will be able to deliver on the promises and at what cost for the country’s economy remains to be seen.
The Europe Now Movement’s influence was significant in setting the agenda for economic discussions. They effectively raised public expectations regarding income levels in Montenegro, positioning their promises as the most tangible among those offered by the various political entities. However, the feasibility of fulfilling these promises, and the potential repercussions on the country’s economy, remain uncertain. The ability of the Europe Now Movement to deliver on their commitments without adversely impacting Montenegro’s economic stability is a matter of keen interest and speculation.
The June 2023 parliamentary elections in Montenegro witnessed an unprecedentedly low voter turnout since the nation regained its independence (see Figure 1), dropping by over 20 percentage points compared to the August 2020 elections. This decline was unexpected for many observers, who had anticipated that heightened societal tensions would translate into increased voter engagement. Instead, the opposite appeared to have occurred. After years of ongoing political unrest, including the pivotal 2020 elections and frequent changes in government, signs of political fatigue seemed to have set in among the Montenegrin electorate. This weariness may be attributed to factors such as unfulfilled political promises, persistent instability, and a growing perception that new governments are ineffective in implementing meaningful changes.
Figure 1: Turnout in Parliamentary elections in Montenegro since regaining independence
While forecasting future election turnouts based on a single event can be challenging, the current political climate in Montenegro indicates a potential for even lower participation rates. Discussions about possible party splits or politicians defecting to form new parties are already surfacing, potentially exacerbating the public’s sense of political disillusionment. This evolving landscape underscores the complexities of predicting voter behavior and highlights the need for a deeper understanding of the factors influencing electoral engagement in Montenegro.
Surprising DPS result
The 2023 Montenegrin parliamentary elections delivered a surprising result with the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), along with its partners, securing 23.2% of the vote share. This outcome was unexpected for two main reasons.
Firstly, pollsters and political analysts had predicted a much stronger performance for the Europe Now Movement (PES), with some forecasts suggesting their support would exceed 30%. This led to a perception that the elections were a foregone conclusion, with Milojko Spajić widely regarded as the almost certain future Prime Minister. Additionally, the PES had repeatedly stated that they would not form a coalition with the DPS, leading many to believe that votes for the DPS were essentially supporting a party destined for the opposition, with little chance of participating in future coalition agreements.
The second reason for surprise stemmed from the long-standing characterization of the DPS as a party entrenched in clientelism. After their historic loss in the August 2020 elections, there was an expectation that their support base would erode rapidly, with former supporters becoming clients of other parties. However, contrary to these predictions, the DPS demonstrated remarkable resilience in maintaining a stable support base. Data from the Montenegro National Election Study (MNES) reveals a high level of loyalty among DPS supporters. Notably, 63.2% of DPS supporters rated the party a perfect 10 on a 10-point like-dislike scale, a level of approval unmatched by other parties. In comparison, only 43.7% of PES supporters gave their party the highest score. Additionally, among Montenegrin citizens who identify closely with a specific party (37% of the population), DPS holds the largest proportion of partisans at 29%, with Europe Now following at 20.7%. This data underscores the enduring strength of the DPS’s support base.
Despite this strong base, the DPS remains widely disliked among supporters of most other parties in Montenegro. This sentiment extends to many party leaders, who generally view the DPS as an undesirable coalition partner, a topic explored further in the subsequent section.
Coalition bargaining – who is (not) a desirable partner
The formation of the new Montenegrin government following the elections was a protracted and complex process, culminating in a parliamentary vote just days before the legal deadline. Despite the Europe Now Movement (PES) not securing as many seats as anticipated, Milojko Spajić emerged as the most likely candidate for Prime Minister. The PES, possessing the greatest potential for forming alliances, was the preferred partner for nearly every other political party.
Initially, the PES sought to honor its campaign pledge of excluding the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), the former Democratic Front (DF), and the United Reform Action (URA) from the coalition. While mathematically feasible, this approach faced significant opposition. A campaign advocating for the DF’s inclusion gained momentum, further fueled by potential defections from within the PES and public opposition to Spajić’s plans. The situation was compounded when Democratic Montenegro (Democrats) insisted on excluding any party associated with the DPS, effectively derailing Spajić’s strategy.
Ultimately, Spajić conceded to the mounting pressure. Andrija Mandić, the leader of the former DF, was appointed Head of Parliament. In exchange for their support, the DF was promised a considerable share of positions in diplomacy, the public sector, and state-owned enterprises. Media reports also suggest that DF members might assume control of several ministries in a cabinet reshuffle planned for the next year, a claim not denied by the governing parties.
In addition to internal dynamics, external pressures played a significant role. Serbian media closely scrutinized the coalition negotiations in Montenegro, and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić controversially remarked on the participation of Serbs in the Montenegrin government, suggesting that the true representatives of Serbs in Montenegro were from the former DF.
The negotiation process was further complicated by tensions within the PES. Jakov Milatović, the party’s vice-president and the country’s president, often publicly criticized Spajić’s approach, fueling rumors of a rift between the two leaders. This strained relationship, fluctuating over the past three years, led to speculation about potential splits within the Europe Now Movement, highlighting the challenges and uncertainties surrounding the coalition’s formation and the future political landscape in Montenegro.
Spajić and Milatovic – split up or stick together
Milojko Spajić and Jakov Milatović, two young leaders in Montenegrin politics, rose to prominence following the August 2020 elections. Their ascent was closely tied to the church protests (“Litije”), led by by the Serbian Orthodox Church. Zdravko Krivokapić, the Montenegrin Prime Minister at the time, often pried how he brought “young, smart, successful” leaders back to Montenegro, so that they could use their expertise to help Montenegrin society. Not everyone believed in that interpretation of reality.
Spajić and Milatović were appointed to lead two important ministries — finance and economy, respectively. They were frequently hailed as the “new stars of Montenegrin politics” and appeared to be close friends, often seen together in public, on TV shows, celebrating birthdays, and ultimately co-founding a new political party.
Despite their initial camaraderie, tensions between the two leaders escalated. Milatović, reportedly dissatisfied with being the second-in-command in the party, engaged in open confrontations over key appointments within the party. His faction even succeeded in expelling members loyal to Spajić. Subsequently, the two leaders began to avoid events where the other was present. Milatović publicly admitted to a long period of non-communication with Spajić and claimed ignorance of Spajić’s coalition-building and governance plans, though he later modified this statement to say they spoke “occasionally.”
While rumors of a potential split within the party persist, both leaders have publicly denied the likelihood of such an event. Now holding significant positions—Spajić as Prime Minister and Milatović as President—their ability to work together remains uncertain. The Montenegrin Constitution vests real power in the Prime Minister, but the President also wields some influence in the country’s political sphere. The nature and effectiveness of their cooperation in these roles is a subject of much speculation and interest in Montenegrin politics.
Where Montenegro goes from here
Montenegro, as it navigates its future, faces many challenges that reflect deep societal divisions and differing perspectives on national identity, democracy, economic and foreign policy. Understanding and facing these challenges will be crucial for addressing the underlying issues and fostering a more prosperous and democratic society. One of the first challenges ahead of new government will be announced Census, which was already postponed several times, as there are growing concerns about strong influence Serbia will have on the process. Spajić’s government need to convince opposition leaders, as well as representatives of national minorities, that it is ready to conduct free and fair Census.
Montenegro National Election Study data reveals some of the additional challenges, which are present in nowadays Montenegro. Some of these are:
– National identity: The fact that more than a quarter of the population does not celebrate May 21, Montenegro’s Independence Day, as a national holiday, indicates a divide in national identity and historical interpretation. This division reflects deeper issues related to the country’s path to independence and its relationship with neighboring countries, particularly Serbia. The issue of national identity is further complicated by the belief, held by well over a third of the population, that Montenegrins are actually Serbs. This view challenges the notion of a distinct Montenegrin identity and highlights the ongoing debate over Montenegro’s cultural and historical ties with Serbia. Those who oppose Montenegrin identity and still do not fully accept Independence referendum results, are voters of currently governing parties.
– State of democracy: More than half of Montenegro’s population expresses dissatisfaction with the functioning of democracy in the country. This sentiment could stem from various factors, including political instability, corruption, or ineffective governance. Addressing these concerns is essential for improving public trust and engagement in the democratic process. According to MNES surveys, every second citizen believes that people are often “pressured to vote in a certain way.” This perception undermines the integrity of the electoral process and suggests a need for stronger measures to ensure free and fair elections, where voters can express their choices without fear or influence.
– Foreign policy: Montenegro’s foreign policy decisions also face significant opposition. A notable portion of the population, 37.85%, opposes the country’s membership in NATO, while 38.4% believe that Montenegro should withdraw its recognition of Kosovo’s independence. These opinions reflect divergent views on Montenegro’s international alignments and its role in regional dynamics. Once again, those who oppose the set foreign policy course are voters of currently governing parties.
– Mounting economic pressure: An impending challenge for Montenegro is the rising cost of living, marked by increasing prices. This economic pressure can have wide-ranging effects, from reducing the purchasing power of citizens to increasing the cost of doing business. Inflationary trends can lead to economic hardship, particularly for those on fixed incomes or in lower income brackets. Effective economic policies and measures to control inflation will be crucial in mitigating these pressures and ensuring economic stability. The expectations among Montenegrin citizens for higher salaries and improved living standards have been set very high, mostly due to populist political promises and campaigns. Meeting these expectations amidst economic challenges, such as rising prices, will be a significant task for the government. Failure to meet these expectations can lead to public discontent and further exacerbate political and social tensions.
Montenegro stands at a very important juncture, facing many challenges that touch upon the very core of its national identity, democratic integrity, economic stability, and international standing. The forthcoming census and the need for Spajić’s government to ensure its fairness exemplify the immediate tasks ahead. Successfully navigating these multifaceted issues will not only require astute governance and inclusive policymaking but also a concerted effort to bridge societal divides. The resolution of these challenges is pivotal for Montenegro’s journey towards a more cohesive, prosperous, and democratically robust future.
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