Political Crisis between Elections in Montenegro

Political Crisis between Elections in Montenegro

In his analysis of the 2018 Montenegrin elections, the author comments on their results, the situation within the opposition ranks, as well as the accompanying societal climate, including the status of media and NGOs in the public discourse. 

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Introduction

The period since the October 2016 parliamentary election was marked by several key events and processes: a) the opposition’s boycott of the parliament (with the exception of Social Democratic Party [SDP] deputies' vote for Montenegrin membership in NATO); b) a trial (which involved, inter alia, three Democratic Front leaders) for attempted terrorism (publically known as the “coup d'état case”) and money laundering; c) confrontations, regroupings, changes in the leadership of the opposition.

In the 2016 election the opposition[1] had won a historic maximum of deputy seats (39) in a parliament consisting of 81 members (the ruling coalition has 42 MPs). Despite of that, the opposition decided to boycott the parliament because of “manipulations that took place on election day, aimed at reducing opposition voters' turnout” which ultimately resulted in the regime's victory.

Presidential Election

Although it has repeatedly been emphasized as the best solution, Đukanović did not announce his run for president of Montenegro until three weeks prior to the election. By all accounts, his candidacy was not the first option for Đukanović himself. Namely, he preferred current Prime Minister Duško Marković to occupy this seat, while planning on keeping the post of party president (DPS) and installing as prime minister a political associate with less political power and potentially less dangerous.

However, after this option was apparently rejected by Marković, and other candidates (Milica Pejanović Đurišić and Milutin Simović) proved to lack a competitive edge, Đukanović himself had to get involved in the election race. A decision by DPS came after the majority of the opposition (Democrats, URA, Democratic Front) announced their presidential candidate; following months of unsuccessful negotiations on a joint candidate, they managed to agree on Mladen Bojanić, a former member of parliament of Montenegro. Bojanić was backed by programmatically differing parties, all of whom in favor of EU accession. An overwhelming majority of them were parties who consider Montenegro's NATO membership a done deal (URA, Democrats, SNP). Also, members of DF include one party which has supported NATO membership (albeit demanding a referendum on that issue).

This presidential campaign was one of the shortest – throughout its course, Đukanović marked it by emphasizing the government's accomplishments and raising old divisions to “patriots” and “traitors”, insisting on preservation of stability and providing guarantees of an accelerated continued path towards Europe.

Đukanović's counter-candidates based their campaign mainly on criticisms of bad governance, weak measures of combating corruption and organized crime, as well as the government's ties with crime and tycoons.

Even though he did not appear in a single televised debate, Đukanović, apart from his criticism of the opposition, also had strong words about non-governmental organizations and media outlets critical of his practice of governance.

Another cause for the public discreditation of a part of the NGO sector in pro-government media and during rallies was the analysis entitled “Montenegro – Between Reform Leader and Reform Simulacrum” addressed to the European Commission. This document pointed out the necessity of the EU issuing a serious warning to the government concerning a possible negotiation suspension (imbalance clause). By doing so, the Commission would call upon an awakening of the stagnant reform processes in the fields of rule of law and anti-corruption measures.[2]

            The atmosphere of division to patriots and traitors was perpetuated by pro-government analysts from the country and the region, via regime media – “TV Pink Montenegro”, “Pobjeda” and “Dnevne Novine”, in particular. For the sake of illustration, one of them claimed that “never has there been more traitors in Montenegro”.[3]

            Milo Đukanović submitted 60,000 signatures in support of his candidacy, whereas Mladen Bojanić handed in 18,500, and Draginja Vuksanović 9,000 signatures, which has proven to be indicative of the final results. Đukanović took a comfortable first-round victory, while his counter-candidates won 33.4 % (Mladen Bojanić) and 8.4 % (SDP candidate Draginja Vuksanović and DEMOS candidate Miodrag Lekić) of the vote. Hence, the head of the Democratic Party of Socialists returned to a public (state) post, following a two-year absence from public office.

Local Election

In the local election held in ten Montenegrin municipalities, the parties in power at the state level have been victorious in all ten.

The most significant political victory was that in the capital Podgorica, where DPS won 47.6 % of the vote and 32 deputy seats, whereas its coalition partner, the Social Democrats (led by the current Speaker of Montenegrin Parliament Ivan Brajović) have won 3 seats (out of 61).

As for the opposition parties, the Democrats coalition (led by Aleksa Bečić) and URA (led by Dritan Abazović), entitled “For the 21st Century”, had the best result. This coalition, formally established a little more than a month ago, won 25.7 % of the vote and 14 seats in the local parliament.

In Bijelo Polje and Bar, larger cities in northern and southern Montenegro, respectively, the ruling parties have scored an even more decisive victory (overall speaking) since they have won 28 seats in Bar, as opposed to only 8 seats of the (traditional) opposition, whereas in Bijelo Polje the DPS-led coalition won 68 % of the vote. The opposition's only success came in the form of once again taking (keeping) power in Berane where the ruling majority is composed of DF, SNP and the Democrats.

The local election results, along with Milo Đukanović's victory in the first round of the presidential election, indicate a total political domination of the Democratic Party of Socialists.

Atmosphere

As is the case in other countries, Montenegrin voters arrive to their polling stations on election day, get their ballot papers and mark them. However, Montenegrin elections are a game which is always won by DPS.

A report by the OSCE observation mission recognizes the “institutional advantage” of candidate Đukanović.[4] More than a half of Montenegrin voters believe that the parties know who they voted for, whereas one in five citizens of Montenegro (22.5%) have been offered money or services in exchange for their vote, which is the highest percentage in the region.[5]

Leading up to the Podgorica local election (May 8), an as of yet unknown perpetrator shot and wounded “Vijesti” daily journalist who was covering the longstanding occurrence of cigarette smuggling. The same reporter had been attacked four years prior when she received threats for covering the same topic. Since 2004, 85 journalists in Montenegro have been subject to various attacks.

Only a few days before the election, another mafia-style assassination in Podgorica took the life of one person, in broad daylight. This murder was the latest in a series of similar ones that took place during the last couple of years. As of mid-June 2018, the attacker in the case of journalist Lakić was not found, nor has the perpetrator of the previously mentioned murder been identified or arrested. This continues a series of failures by the prosecution and security agencies. Not a single case out of more than 25 attacks aimed against journalists and the property of the “Vijesti” media group has been completely resolved. In September 2017, the authorities have initiated a campaign to overtake control of public broadcaster Radio and Television of Montenegro (RTCG), through a series of replacements of unsuitable RTCG Board members and by installing personnel affiliated to the ruling party. This operation has been formally concluded with a dismissal, which was harshly condemned by the EU, USA and OSCE.

The local election in Podgorica has also been marked by the beating of a Democrats/URA coalitions' group of activists by DPS activists in the outskirts of Podgorica. The attack was caused by the opposition activists' attempt to identify and publicize the locations of DPS election headquarters in which “vote buying” occurs. They have undertaken this task (whistle blowing) since the police and prosecution have for years (decades) been unwilling to become involved with the criminal prosecution of organized vote buying.

A Look into the Future

It is already certain that Đukanović will not step down from the post of Democratic Party of Socialists president, or that he will not do so at least until the end of 2019 when the DPS' 8th Congress is scheduled. It seems that the loss of Tomislav Nikolić's political power in Serbia was an informative experience. Namely, when he assumed his post as President of the Republic of Serbia, Nikolić resigned as head of the Serbian Progressive Party, thus leaving this key political post to his party associate, but also (as it will turn out) competitor Aleksandar Vučić. As Nikolić's term in office was nearing its end, Vučić undertook a series of tactical moves to remove him from the political scene.

Also, it seems highly unlikely for Đukanović's presidency to resemble the one of his predecessor Filip Vujanović. Đukanović will have a difficult time coming to terms with the fact that the Constitution is not very generous with regard to presidential jurisdictions. First impressions indicate that Đukanović is more present in the Montenegrin and international public arena, as well as that the political messages voiced by him are more frequent and stronger as compared with the time of the former president.   

The unscheduled adoption of the Draft Law on President of Montenegro, the first such law since the renewal of Montenegro's independence in 2006, illustrates the new president's different ambitions and indicates the expansion of his sphere of power, given that Đukanović never confined to formal frameworks but rather adjusted the institutions to his own interests.

The opposition has lost power in Kolašin, and continues to rule in Kotor, Budva, Herceg Novi and Berane. However, due to numerous disputes at the local and national level, it will probably face challenges in keeping its mandate in the full term.

After having expressed its concern that the Assembly would not be able to appoint the four Judicial Council members from the ranks of reputable jurists[6], due to a boycott by opposition MP’s (according to the Constitution, this requires a two-third majority in the first, or a three-fifth majority in the second round of voting), the Government adopted a bill in June which instituted a “technical mandate” for a part of the Judicial Council until the new appointment of a new one. The opposition objected to the adoption of this law; however, it was passed and the new President extended the mandate of the existing members until their appointment in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution. This issue still remains open, as a source of potential disputes.

In the period between April and July, a series of previously initiated negative processes has been concluded. A purge of unsuitable personnel has taken place within the Council of RTCG. They have been replaced by loyal party cadres. As a result thereof, a new pro-government majority has been established and a new president of the Council was appointed. This was followed by the replacement of Director Andrijana Kadija and appointment of her replacement. Finally, the program director and all the news program editors have been replaced, as well.

Vanja Ćalović, director of renowned anti-corruption NGO “MANS” was replaced as member of the Agency for Prevention of Corruption (ASK) on July 5, based on a decision by the ASK director (father of the Prime Minister's sister-in-law) and the votes of the ruling majority in the Parliament. A project financing agreement, realized by her organization with the support of the European Union, has triggered her dismissal.

In late July, Veselin Veljović, the kum[7] of Prime Minister Duško Marković, was appointed director of the Police Directorate. The entire procedure was completed with unprecedented efficiency by the Government and the Parliament, whereas the appointment itself was carried out during an electronic Government session. Veljović has for years been accused of a series of scandals which resulted in millions worth of damages to the state budget, of protecting police officials who have committed human rights violations, and threats against civil society activists. He stepped down from his post of police director during the Igor Lukšić government. Veljović's appointment is considered to a be a return to the dark times of illegality, arbitrariness and bad governance.

There is a continued trend of collapsing cooperation mechanisms – which took much effort to establish in the first place – between the government and the NGO sector. Moreover, these relations have reached an all-time low during 2018, as is most evident in the purge of critical NGO representatives, followed by intensive media smear campaigns, as well as threats against certain leaders of the NGO sector.

On a brighter note, there have been new positive developments with regard to the relations between the government and the opposition concerning the solution of the parliamentary crisis and creation of proper conditions for the next election. In June, two opposition parties, Democratic Montenegro (Democrats) and United Reform Action (URA) have published the “Plan[8] for overcoming the current political and institutional situation in Montenegro” and promised to take part in an ad hoc parliamentary committee consisting of opposition and government representatives which will deal with, inter alia, a comprehensive election reform and alteration of media laws. After the plan was publicized, the two party leaders were received in Brussels by the Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn who voiced his support of their plan. The initiative on the establishment of a parliamentary committee will presumably be realized in September.

            Montenegro is expecting the European Commission interim benchmark assessment report by the end of this year. This will not only represent an evaluation of what has been achieved, but also a guideline for meeting the final benchmarks. A next step in the right direction would be for the European Commission to conduct a discussion with the civil society, democratic opposition, media and independent experts on what has been achieved and further ways of reaching European standards.

            In a late-July interview given to “Italpress”, during his visit with the President of Italy, Đukanović stated: “We will launch a region-wide initiative to formulate a common policy with regard to the European Union, because we believe that partnerships can help the successful integration process of our countries which serves both sides' interest. We do not want to waste time; we will work with dedication on the essential Europeanization of Western Balkan societies, while the EU is dealing with internal consolidation.”

This remains slightly ambiguous, especially given that during his recent visit to Podgorica, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban stated: “Montenegro could be admitted to the EU tomorrow or the day after, only if there is political will”. He went on to promise that he would “take part in creating this will”. Only a few days thereafter, he stated that “Serbia and Montenegro are not a part of the Balkans, but of Central Europe”.

In a more recent statement, President Đukanović said: “Unfortunately, we are noticing attempts coming from certain centers of power to overemphasize the existing problems, or artificially generate new ones, in order to create a perception of Montenegro perhaps being unwilling to realize its European goal, with the aim to slow down, or even block our country on its path towards EU membership.”

Many civil society leaders fear that by such stigmatization of Montenegrin NGOs and, indirectly, certain foreign countries, the government’s rhetoric slides further towards proclaiming each critical thought an act of betrayal and cooperation with foreign factors. After all, some have been accused of cooperating with Russia, others with the EU members states. Such constellation leaves Đukanović as the only pure defender of Montenegro’s interests, which is simply not the case and is becoming very dangerous!

 

(The article expresses the authors’ personal opinions and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Heinrich Böll Foundation.)

 

[1] Parliamentary opposition consists of deputies of the Democratic Front, Social Democratic Party, DEMOS, Democrats, United Reform Action (URA) and the Socialist People's Party of Montenegro (SNP). Two deputies act independently of the SNP electoral list, despite the fact that they had been elected to parliament as its representatives, namely as part of the “Ključ” (“Key”) coalition. Following a division within DEMOS, two deputies act as members of the newly formed United Montenegro party, whereas one deputy, who has also been elected as representative of DEMOS, acts as an independent MP.

[3]http://pinkm.me/vijesti/33582/todor-nikad-više-izdajnika-crnogorski-identitet-ponovo-na-ispitu-(foto+video)

[6] The Judicial Council has 10 members, 4 of whom are appointed by the Conference of Judges, 4 by the Parliament from the ranks of reputable jurists, with the President of the Supreme Court and Minister of Justice as the remaining two members.

[7] In the orthodox wedding tradition, kum is the equivalent of best man – translator’s note.