Sunday brings a busy Summer of Balkan elections to a close. Following Serbia and Croatia’s elections in June and July, Montenegro will hold its own on 30 August. The 30 year revolving door rule of Milo Đukanović (DPS-S&D) is under a serious threat after a year of protests sparked by a controversial religious law and a litany of other complaints that have galvanised opposition to his rule. Two large opposition blocs hope to unseat his Democratic Party of Socialists (Demokratska partija socijalista, DPS-S&D) from government, but their victory is far from certain.
In Montenegro, politics revolve around one man and one man only—Milo Đukanović. His political career has spanned many decades, many political positions and many faces. He has served four terms as Prime Minister, one as Minister of Defense, and two as President—the role in which he is currently serving.
His first term as Prime Minister, from 1991-1998, was at the head of what was then a non-sovereign government of Montenegro within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. He came to power on the back of Serbian Slobodan Milošević’s anti-bureaucratic revolution, which replaced the Communist old-guard with younger pro-Serb and pro-Milošević leaders across the Serb-dominated areas of Yugoslavia. Đukanović became Prime Minister at just 29 years old, and as an ardent Serb nationalist, he actively participated in and encouraged the wars in Yugoslavia to redraw the borders in favour of Serbia.
He, however, made a political U-turn in the mid-90s, publicly criticising Milošević and starting to advocate for an independent Montenegro. By the late 90s, he had been elected President of the Republic of Montenegro within the Yugoslav rump-state and was openly pushing towards Montenegrin independence. Milošević’s fall in millennia’s turn temporarily halted his drive towards secession, but eventually the country declared independence in 2006 after a referendum on the matter passed with 55.5% in favour.
About 30% of Montenegro is Serb and areas that voted against independence unsurprisingly tended to be Serb-dominated. Already then the political cleavages that persist to this day were apparent, but today they find a new expression.
The largest crisis in Đukanović’s decades-long political career came in late 2019 after his government adopted a law which transferred ownership of Orthodox Church buildings built pre-1918 to the Montenegrin state. This is due to a longstanding conflict between the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro and the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which both claim to represent the country’s majority Orthodox population.
The bill sparked enormous protests by opposition parties, the Orthodox Church, and dissatisfied citizens in general. The alliance with the most vocal opposition to the abovementioned law and most supportive of the protests and their message is the conservative electoral alliance of Democratic Front (Demokratski Front, DF-ECR), True Montenegro (Prava Crna Gora, PCG-*), Socialist People’s Party (Socialistička narodna partija, SNP~S&D), and United Montenegro (Ujedinjena Crna Gora, UCG-*), collectively running under the banner of For the Future of Montenegro (Za budućnost Crne Gore, ZbCG-ECR). This is the option most popular with Montenegrin Serbs, though the parties within it represent a range of political views.
Representing the more moderate opposition is the alliance Peace is Our Nation (Mir je naša nacija, MjNN→EPP), consisting of Demos (*) and Democratic Montenegro (Demokrstska Crna Gora, DCG→EPP), along with several smaller parties. MjNN considers itself an ‘anti-nationalist’ option, attempting to avoid the divisive nationalist rhetoric so common to the country and the region. It is by no means the most lefternmost option, however, with United Reform Action (Ujedinjena reformska akcija, URA-G/EFA) as the face of green and progressive politics in the country.
The other parties that generally show up in polls are the minority Bosniak Party (Bošnjačka stranka, BS-EPP) and the Albanian minority alliance Albanian List (Albanska lista, AL-*) , both of which are in Đukanović’s government. So too in government are the Social Democrats of Montenegro (Sociijaldemokrate Crna Gore, SD-*), not to be confused with the Social Democratic Party of Montenegro (Socijaldemokratska parija, SDP-S&D), which is in opposition.
The question on Sunday will be whether the combined seats of the two opposition alliances along with URA will be larger than the share won by the remaining parties. It is those three that are most solidly against Đukanović and most certain to form a government to exclude him from power, given the chance.
Polling in the run-up to the election shows that Đukanović’s DPS is still solidly in the lead at around 35 per cent, though less popular than it was four years ago. ZbCG meanwhile is polling strongly at around 25 per cent and MjNN at around 15 per cent, while URA has recently polled at around six or seven per cent. With a nationwide d’Hondt method of allocating seats and a three per cent threshold to enter parliament, the final distribution of seats is far from certain even looking at recent polls.
DPS looks set to win its lowest vote share in its own and in Montenegro’s history. The question is will that still be enough to keep the DPS in power for another four years. One way or another, it will be one of the closest races in the country’s history and one where every last vote will count.