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Montenegro Election: Can the Opposition Coalition Make it to Government?

Despite worrying signs of democratic backsliding, Montenegro’s recent elections demonstrated that political competition is alive and well, with the opposition coalition winning a narrow majority and upending 30 years of Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) dominance.

While a seemingly positive development, the country’s future remains in doubt. As coalition parties continue negotiations to form a government, fears are starting to mount that President Milo Djukanovic could exploit divisions within the coalition to undercut its majority and retain power. Worryingly, post-election violence targeting Montenegro’s minority Bosniak community is exacerbating interethnic tensions and could cause further political destabilization.

As the opposition coalition continues negotiations to form a government, here are three recommendations to help the incoming government overcome their differences and tackle the pressing challenges facing their country.

1) The coalition should set aside their foreign policy differences and agree on a governing agenda of domestic reform that reinvigorates the country’s European Union (EU) ambitions.

The winning coalition consists of three groups: the For the Future of Montenegro bloc, the Peace is Our Nation bloc and the Black on White bloc. For the Future of Montenegro is the largest bloc and prefers closer relations with Serbia and Russia, while the smaller Peace is Our Nation and Black on White blocs prefer continued alignment with the EU and U.S.

Djukanovic could exploit this cleavage to entice Black on White’s four MPs into forming an explicitly pro-West government with his DPS party. Alternatively, if the coalition is able to form a government, Djukanovic could manipulate this cleavage to destabilize the new government and obstruct its governing agenda as leader of the opposition.

To avoid these scenarios, the coalition must set aside foreign policy differences and develop a governing agenda that prioritizes key economic, political, and judicial reforms. If For the Future of Montenegro sets aside its desire to change Montenegrin foreign policy, it will be able to persuade Peace is Our Nation and Black on White to join a governing coalition that finally allows it to govern. Moreover, the government would rest on a popular governing platform that moves Montenegro closer to EU membership, something IRI polling shows 63 percent of Montenegrins want.

While the opposition blocs announced their intention not to change Montenegro’s international commitments and instead focus on broad ranging reforms in government, joint press statements are only a starting point for developing a governing agenda. The opposition needs a detailed set of reforms and a public plan for implementation that keeps the governing coalition focused on positive-sum domestic reform, not distracted by zero-sum, foreign policy debates.

2) The opposition should recognize its victory as an opportunity to strengthen Montenegrin democracy in ways that promote political competition and reverse democratic backsliding.

The election has proven that Montenegro remains politically competitive despite its descent from a semi-consolidated democracy to a hybrid regime, which Freedom House has argued was the result of “increasing state capture, abuse of power, and strongman tactics” by Djukanovic and the DPS. It was ultimately popular disgust with this type of DPS dominance and corruption that drove the opposition’s victory.

Nonetheless, with only a narrow majority and Djukanvoic ensconced as president, the opposition colaition’s opportunity to reset the direction of the country may prove fleeting. In order to maximize their prospects for success, the coalition should develop thorough, far-reaching political reforms that address these systemic problems and show the public that they are responsive to their concerns. These reforms should focus on improving conditions for a true multiparty system, reviving media freedom, enhancing the independence of the civil service and strengthening civil society. As part of this effort to liberalize Montenegrin politics, it is crucial that the opposition avoid the temptation to punish Djukanovic and the DPS, which would only undermine its reformist credentials with the Montenegrin people.

3) Political leaders across the political spectrum must unite in opposition to interethnic violence.

In the aftermath of the election, Montenegro’s Bosniak community has been the target of vile attacks – reawakening fears of Serbian ethnonationalism and undermining the opposition’s efforts to convince small ethnic parties to join their coalition. (Montenegro is a multiethnic state comprised of 45 percent Montenegrins, 28.7 percent Serbs, 8.7 percent Bosniaks, 4.9 percent Albanians; 12.7 percent are composed of several smaller ethnic groups.) These attacks allegedly stem from Serbian nationalist celebrations in response to the pro-Serb For the Future of Montenegro’s election victory, which was likely interpreted as affirming the dominance of Orthodox Christianity in Montenegro and by extension the privileged place of Serbs.

All three opposition blocs should follow the lead of Orthodox Christian Metropolitan Amfilohije and condemn these attacks forcefully and consistently, affirm their support for Montenegro’s multiethnic character and highlight how their policies will benefit all Montenegrins. Separately, Djukanovic and the DPS – comprised mostly of ethnic Montenegrins – should recognize the role that their “Freedom of Religion” law played in stoking interethnic tensions and their election loss. Passed last year, the law required the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro to prove ownership of its property from before 1918. This was interpreted by Orthodox believers – especially Serbs – as an attempt by the government to seize Church property and destroy one of the last independent institutions in Montenegro, fueling protests and the electoral turn against the DPS. The DPS should learn from this experience and recognize identity politics as a destabilizing and losing strategy, and focus on an agenda that unites rather than divides the country.

As Montenegro forms its next government, it faces serious political, social and economic challenges. It is vital that parties across the political spectrum unite around the broad goals of reducing interethnic tensions and introducing political reforms to put Montenegro back on the path to democracy.