Montenegro: divisive elections and no government in sight

The Montenegrin democracy seems to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. The parliamentary elections on 16 October 2016 have highlighted longstanding political tensions and difficulties and put them in broad daylight, and the message for the Montenegrin democracy is indeed a difficult one. And the results confirm it.

One month after the elections, there is still no government, and the Parliament was constituted on 7th of November without the opposition, which does not recognise the results.

To highlight the tensions between the two main political blocks, the Prime Minister claims to have been the target of an attempted coup on election day, where the pro-Russian and pro-Serbian opposition would have orchestrated the plot and engaged Serbian and Russian citizens to carry it out.

The campaign was largely portrayed along two lines: first that the government under Prime Minister Djukanovic stands for the pro-EU and pro-NATO path towards a bright future, and that the opposition is backed by Russia, and the opposition’s claim that the government is corrupt and abusing its power. Both sides have credible arguments and the combination of them paints an ugly picture.

Given the accusations against the Prime Minister of involvement in organised crime, corruption and abuse of power, in combination with an opposition actively advocating closer ties with Russia rather than the EU and in particular NATO, the question is whether any of the options available is willing to actively strengthen democracy, rule of law and separation of powers.

The results

2016 was a rather turbulent year for Montenegrin politics, when four new parties were born out of the already existing ones, and MPs changing allegiance within the Palriament,which makes direct comparison of electoral results somewhat difficult. To complicate the comparison, also coalitions have changed. But nevertheless, the results are as follows, with incomplete figures from 2014 to give a broader picture:

Party Results 2016 Mandates Results 2012 Difference
Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro, (DPS) 41.41 36 33 +3
Democratic Front (DF) (Coalition) 20.32 18 20 -2
Ključ (Coalition) 11.05 9 Not present 0
Democratic Montenegro (DCG) 10.8 8 Not present (new party) 0
Social Democratic Party of Montenegro (SDP) 5.23 4 6 -2
Social Democrats of Montenegro (SD) 3.26 2 Not present (new party)  
Bosniak Party (BS) 3.16 2 3 -1
Albanians Decisively (AO) (Coalition) 1.27 1 Not present 0
Croatian Civic Initiative (HGI) 0.47 1 1 0


The Parliament has 81 seats, with a threshold of 3%. Minority parties covering more than 15% of the population have a threshold of 0.7%, except from Croats, which have a lower limit of 0.3%.

The ruling DPS won an ambiguous victory, and needs to seek a coalition partner to secure a majority. It has long been in coalition with the SDP, which won 4 seats. That is not enough to form a government, even if the SD would be willing to enter into coalition with the DPS again.

The opposition, on the other hand, is seemingly too shattered to get together and form a new government and to reach its long standing goal of ousting Mr Djukanovic. Internal splits and new party creations have not helped the opposition to unite, not even the parties which carry largely the same agenda.

As such, it may take considerable time before a government is formed. In fact, the negotiations are discreet and have not created much rumour.

The long reign of Milo Djukanovic

Milo Djukanovic has been in power since the first multiparty elections in 1991, either as prime Minister (1991-1998, 2002-2006, 2008-2010, and 2012 to present) or as President (1998-2002) apart from two periods of retirement between 2006-2008 and 2010-2012. As such, he and his party DPS have been the backbone of Montenegrin power for over 25 years. In fact, given that Mr Djukanovic started his political career in the Montenegrin communist party, and that DPS is a splinter from the Communist party, the country has not seen a transition of power from former communists to another political party.

He has proven to be a political chameleon, moving from being a part of the Communist party and even a close ally of Slobodan Milosevic in the late 1980’s, to becoming a Montenegrin nationalist and pro-independence advocate. He is also behind the Montenegrin EU application and opening membership negotiations, and as late as in 2015 Montenegro was invited by NATO to become members, which he advocates.

Allegations of corruption, electoral fraud and abuse of power

As such it is excusable to believe that he would be an advocate of deeper democratic reforms and protector of the rule of law, given that these are prerequisites for EU and NATO membership and corner stones of a modern state seeking international legitimacy. But Montenegro demonstrates serious problems with these aspects, where Freedom House reports that “abuse of power, misuse of public resources for party purposes, and excessive employment within the public administration remain common issues.”

Mr Djukanoviv has long been accused of being involved in, or at least associated with, organised crime, in particular cigarette smuggling , and he was even investigated by Italian prosecutors at one point in time but the investigations could not proceed due to his immunity as the then Prime Minister of Montenegro.

These are heavy allegations indeed, and the allegations continue to follow him. As such, he is a divisive figure in Montenegro, although seen with some respect for his achievements during his reign.

Given these allegations against Mr Djukanovic and his rule, it is natural that the opposition has focused its campaign on corruption, abuse of power and electoral fraud. In September 2015 the opposition alliance Democratic Front (DF) initiated protests against the government claiming that the government did not enjoy the legitimacy to organise free and fair elections, accusing the Prime Minister of electoral fraud and misuse of state funds for party political purposes. After some weeks of protests, the Police met the demonstrators with tear gas. As the situation turn violent, people got injured, including opposition politicians.

The demonstrations continued well into late winter, and the immediate crisis ended with an agreement between the government and the opposition where a number of ministers were replace with opposition figures. The aim was to break some of the power and direct control over key aspects of the state and the organisation of the elections.

The opposition and ties to Russia

Djukanovic on the other hand, claimed that the protests were in fact orchestrated by Russia with the goal to derail the Montenegrin NATO bid. The opposition is in fact to a large extent set up by a number of pro-Russian, pro-Serbian parties which are strongly opposing a future NATO membership.

Both being Slav and Orthodox countries, Russia and Montenegro have held tight ties up until recently. Hundreds of thousands of Russians make Montenegro their holiday destination each year, and as many as 30% of Montenegrin companies are Russian owned. As such, Russian interests and influences in Montenegro have been relatively strong.

However, Montenegro joined sanctions against Russia over the crisis in Ukraine, a move which has cooled down the relationship. It deteriorated further as NATO invited Montenegro to join the Alliance, a move which may be seen as more geopolitical than actually driven by common values and interests.

But nevertheless, Russia is trying to keep relations close, and has been courting the opposition parties actively during the spring.

The pro-Russian camp in Montenegro is also pro-Serbian, which means that it opposed national independence and would have preferred to remain in state union with Serbia after the referendum on independence in 2006. In fact, about 30% of the inhabitants in Montenegro identify themselves as Serbs, and almost 45% declare that they speak Serbian. They tend to side with Serbian nationalists on a number of issues, including on EU and in particular NATO membership, and relations to Russia.

The deal

The demonstrations were only one part of the protests. The biggest opposition party (which is in effect a coalition of parties), the Democratic Front (DF) boycotted Parliament between October 2015 and May 2016,and this only ended when the opposition and government came to an agreement on the division of power and how to proceed with the elections. The deal, which had been facilitated by the EU, meant that four ministers and one deputy prime minister were to be allocated to the opposition parties.

The ministries affected were the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, and Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare. In addition, a new speaker of Parliament was elected and a set of committees monitoring the electoral process were set up. The deal was signed by the governing DPS and its junior partner Social Democrat Party (SDP), plus the opposition parties Demos, URA Civic Movement, the Bosniak Party and the Social Democrats. The DF, which started the protests, did not sign.

New parties and splits

It should be noticed that both Demos and URA Civic Moment are two brand new parties, where Demos is the new creation of the former leader of DF who left that party in 2015 to set up Demos, and URA which is led by a former SDP leader. In fact, 2015 was the year when four new parties were born in Montenegro through the splitting of existing parties.

Although nothing strange in the Balkans, the phenomenon was, somewhat ironically, labelled the “Gemino spell” after a spell in Harry Potter where things double when touched, creating “dozens of parties which are indistinguishable copies of one another.”

Such moves do not help strengthening the opposition, but are rather signs of the personalised aspects of politics, where disagreements are met by split rather than programmatic debate within the party. The result is, however, that the opposition parties that started the protests and demonstrations did not sign the deal. Indeed, they also refuse to recognise the electoral results.

The elections

Election day was generally calm and orderly, and voting was overall smooth, according to international observers. The opposition, however, highlighted a number of incidents which they denounced to the court. In addition to these accusations, there were a handful of returning difficulties, which international observers continue to point out: the electoral list is contested, media is biased and keep a low level of quality, and party funding is far from transparent.

First, the electoral list is a typical matter of concern in many countries, and also in Montenegro there are allegations of duplications, dead persons still on the list, etc. In fact, the list contained 528,817 persons in a country with an estimation of 622,218 inhabitants according to official statistics, leaving 85% of the population as eligible voters. As the opposition claims that this number is too high, an electronic system to clean up the list has been developed and put in use. However, when the Minister of Interior, coming from the opposition, needed to sign the list, he refused to do so arguing that it had not been properly cleaned from false entries. Eventually, a solution was found as a secretary signed it, but the doubt of the accuracy remains.

Second, the Montenegrin media is divided along political lines, and far from free and open, leaving it difficult for the population to make an informed choice. Government officials show “blatant favouritism” towards certain media outlets, and journalists, not only independent such, face “threats, attacks, and vandalism of their property”, leading to self-censorship and editorials being everything but independent. This puts Montenegro as number 106 out of 180 in the Press Freedom Index, and affects the possibility for the electorate to get a broad and in depth analysis of the choices available, hampering the free choice.

Thirdly, the funding of political party is far from transparent. The ODIHR election monitoring mission writes that “All campaign finance transactions must be carried out through a specially designated bank account[…]. Some parties opened campaign accounts late or reported little or no donations”. At the same time, the EU points out that “There has been no political follow-up to the alleged abuse of public funds for party political purposes” underlining the international concerns on this issue.

At the bottom of these concerns lie worries about where the parties get their funding from, and how they use it. The “Audio recording affair” which broke in 2013 show that the governing Democratic Party of Socialists offer jobs and loans to party donors and supporters.  At the same time the government accuse parts of the opposition to receive funds from Russia, which is indeed illegal as foreign funding is prohibited by law.

The lack of transparency regarding party funding is deeply worrying, in particular in combination with the severe accusations form both political sides, and international worries in addition. It casts a shadow over the level of separation between party and state, and the level of political corruption in the country. A shadow which has been better defined and more evident during the electoral campaign and the aftermath of the elections. The Montenegrin democracy is indeed caught between a rock and a hard place.


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