Montenegro will most probably have a new government. That would not come as such a surprise were it not for the fact that this government will come after thirty years of the unhindered rule of one party, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS). The parliamentary elections were held mostly in a peaceful atmosphere, preceded by a great deal of friction and disagreements over the Law on the Freedom of Religion, which the DPS pushed through and adopted overnight only a few days before New Year’s Eve 2020. The protests provoked by the adoption of this law and the engagement of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) on the ground are connected to the electoral success of the right-wing nationalist Democratic Front (DF). An important factor that influenced the result was citizens’ dissatisfaction due to the extremely worrying economic and political situation in the country.
According to the results published by the State Election Commission, the coalition called “For the Future of Montenegro”, headed by the DF, won 32.54% of the vote and a projected 27 seats, which allows them to form a majority with the Democrats, the URA civic movement and the coalition around this movement. Although the DPS, with 30 seats, is still the strongest party, it does not have the necessary majority to form a government with minority parties and traditional coalition partners.
Such an outcome raises many questions and fears in the country, the region, but also among most media in the West. The two most important questions are whether Montenegro is changing its foreign policy course, and what this means for the country’s European path. DF is a coalition with a pro-Russian and pro-Serbian outlook, and all hopes of controlling it lie with potential coalition partners. Although the DF has often been described as a Eurosceptic bloc, all the parties that make it up are declaratively in favour of membership in the European Union and there are no obstacles in that sense. All opposition parties put the fight against corruption and strengthening the rule of law at the centre of their programmes and pre-election promises, so this could even mark a key and necessary turn and a determination to fulfill the obligations laid out in the negotiations, providing the necessary good track record, the lack of which has so far held up Montenegro in the process.
But the potential coalition of the three opposition blocs also has a number of disagreements over other issues, such as NATO membership and LGBT rights, and hence the potential exercise of power will be an even greater challenge. But I believe it would be challenging for any composition of parties coming to power after such a long rule by one party. Now the responsibility for upholding pro-Western values is on the shoulders of the two remaining potential coalition members, with all eyes on the URA.
Apart from the general concern of whether the country will be subject to nationalist trends, there are some positive signals on the horizon. First, even with the institutional advantage enjoyed by the DPS, which the OSCE noted again this time, these elections have shown that it is possible to remove, by democratic means, a government that does not respect human rights and freedoms and abuses its position without accountability. This is a good signal for the citizens of the region too. Second, this builds awareness that power is changeable, which is a precondition for democratisation. Third, a broad coalition in power may be the foundation for increased democratisation in Montenegro, which has been hampered by the concentration of power in one man and one party for the last 30 years.
To conclude, the election results are both worrying and encouraging. The principles already agreed by the three opposition leaders (commitment to international contracts signed by the previous government including the one on NATO membership; commitment to Montenegro’s European path; establishment of an expert government; respect for the rule of law and changing discriminatory laws) are not a cause for concern – for now.