Montenegro - Politics
Montenegrins went to the polls on Sunday, August 30, to vote for 81 members of Parliament. The elections were initially expected in October but are taking place earlier as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Key campaign topics include the national identity, the law of freedom of religion, the geopolitical orientation of the country, the fight against corruption and the pandemic. Though polling stations are required to implement safety measures, concerns are growing as the country faces a resurgence of COVID-19 cases.
Montenegro has been falling behind or stagnant for years in all parameters that affect the state of democracy and the rule of law, as shown by all relevant international reports that follow the country’s reforms, including the annual reports of the European Commission.
Montenegro’s politics continue to be polarized, with political parties defining themselves by their pro-Western or pro-Serbian/Russian orientations and national identity playing a large role, especially following the passage of the controversial Freedom of Religion Law. Endemic corruption and weak institutions have also created an opening for Russian influence and disinformation.
Montenegro has a unicameral Skupština (Assembly) composed of 81 seats with members serving 4-year terms. Members of the Assembly are directly elected in a single nationwide constituency by proportional representation vote. Elections were last held on 16 October 2016. The Democratic Party of Socialists won 35 seats, the Democratic Front won 18, the Socialist People’s Party of Montenegro won 9, Democratic Montenegro also won 9, and the Social Democratic Party won 4.
Following the 2016 parliamentary elections, the DPS formed a ruling coalition with 42 members of parliament (MPs), with the support of five other parties, including two representing the Bosniak and Croat minorities. The opposition parties obtained 39 seats. However, they refused to accept the election results, due to the arrest on election day of two opposition leaders and other individuals for allegedly planning a coup d’état. Subsequently, all six opposition parties boycotted parliamentary sessions until October 2017 when four returned but two parties have continued the boycott.
Campaign finance is regulated by the 2019 Law on Financing Political Entities and Election Campaigns (political finance law), amended in April 2020 to legalize the distribution of welfare benefits throughout an election year in case of pandemic.27 The new law defined the campaign activities under its scope, but did not clearly establish unified deadlines for campaign donations, reporting and for opening campaign accounts. The law provides for public financing of election campaigns. Twenty per cent of the public funding is distributed in equal amounts to all contestants within eight days after the deadline for candidate registration. The remaining funds are disbursed after the submission of final campaign finance reports, among the lists that obtain seats in parliament, proportionally to the number of seats won.
In addition, campaigns can be funded from individual donations and the funds of the nominating parties or coalitions. The new political finance law increased donations from individuals from EUR 2,000 to EUR 5,000 and from legal entities – from EUR 10,000 to EUR 20,000. A contestant may spend up to EUR 2.3 million during the entire campaign. Campaigns may not be financed from donations by foreign states, public institutions or companies with a share of state capital, anonymous donations and from individuals who are not entitled to vote in the country, trade unions, religious organizations, NGOs, casinos and bookmakers.
Montenegrin police detained dozens of people following pro-Serbian rallies in Podgorica and other cities across the Balkan country. The rallies were called by opposition figures who are seeking closer ties with Serbia and Russia. The 24 June 2020 protests reflect mounting political tensions in Montenegro ahead of parliamentary elections. Protests broke out in the Adriatic coastal town of Budva where tensions have been high for days due to a dispute between municipal authorities. Police in Budva used tear gas to disperse the demonstrators and detained 17 people. The tensions in Budva began on June 17 when Mayor Marko Carevic, who is loyal to Montenegro's pro-Serbian opposition, refused to hand over power to the ruling coalition after losing majority control in the local assembly.
The elections are being held at a time of political crisis which erupted from the protests throughout Montenegro over the adoption of the disputed Law on Freedom of Religion which have been ongoing since December 2019. Early in 2020, the Serbian Orthodox Church led weeks of protests in Montenegro against a religious law that the church leaders claimed would strip the church of its property in the country. That law came into force in January. It says religious communities must prove their ownership of property before 1918 -- the year Montenegro joined the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and its church was absorbed by the Serbian Orthodox Church, losing all of its property in the process. The Serbian Orthodox Church says the law is aimed at retaking its property. Montenegrin officials have repeatedly denied that claim.
Montenegro split from Serbia in a referendum in 2006. It has further distanced itself from Belgrade and its Orthodox ally Russia since then, taking a pro-Western foreign-policy course and joining NATO in 2017. Montenegro also has been negotiating steps toward becoming a member of the European Union. Serbian nationalists in Montenegro and Serbia have never fully recognized Serbia's separation from Montenegro, which they claim is a historic Serbian territory.
The latest Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom index, published in April 2020, ranked Montenegro 105th out of 180 countries. What particularly worried them was the continued restriction of freedom of expression, through state supervision of social media and numerous police and prosecutorial activities aimed at prosecuting citizens for open, satirical publications. The government continues to control the public broadcaster, which has long since slipped into openly acting as a ruling party media.
Freedom House (FH) report “Nations in Transit”, a document which evaluates the state of democracy in 29 countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, published in May 2020, showed that Montenegro, for the first time since 2003, is not a democracy, but a “government in transition or hybrid regime”, meaning that power is based on authoritarianism as a result of incomplete democratic change. “For years, with increased state capture, abuse of power, and tactic of ruling by fear, Aleksandar Vucic in Serbia and Milo Ðukanovic in Montenegro have taken their states below the line – for the first time since 2003, they are no longer in the category of democracies among countries in transit,” reads the report.
The US National Democratic Institute (NDI) has conducted a public opinion poll in Montenegro in early August on the process leading to the parliamentary elections on August 30. Citizens are split over whether Montenegro is heading in the right or wrong direction, arrayed largely along partisan and ethnic lines. Citizen appraisal of foreign actors--the U.S., the European Union, Russia, China, and NATO--have ebbed since March 2020 to beneath 50%, with the EU at 49%, Russia (44%), China (35%), NATO (30%), and the U.S. (28%).
Poll respondents prioritize employment (39%), economic development (28%), stemming youth emigration (27%), fighting corruption and crime (20%), and combating the COVID-19 epidemic (18%). Eighty (80) percent express intention to vote in the elections. A strong majority (87%) across the political spectrum objects to partisan hate speech in the election campaign. Approximately 45 percent of respondents, mainly those supporting opposition parties, fear violations and irregularities that may call into question election results.
Television is the primary source of information for voters (81%), followed by the internet, newspapers (70%), and social networks (59%). Thirty-three (33) percent of respondents verify news stories within immediate family/social circles. Twenty (20) percent report engaging in online political discussions. Public opinion is divided on whether state media reporting on politics is fair and balanced.
A high number of diverse media outlets operate within financially insufficient advertising market.33 The dependence on financing by political and business interests undermines editorial autonomy, investigative journalism and genuine pluralism. The media landscape reflects the polarization of political elites and leaves journalists prone to self-censorship.
On 20 June 2020, the president called the parliamentary elections for 30 August. Concurrently, local elections will be held in five municipalities. The 81 members of the parliament will be elected from closed candidate lists under a proportional representation system, in a single nationwide constituency. Candidate lists are eligible for seats, if they surpass a three per cent threshold. Preferential rules are applicable to candidate lists representing national minorities. There are some 540,300 registered voters.
Holding the elections in the midst of a growing coronavirus epidemic, with a number of severe restrictions on conducting a political election campaign. Whereas the campaign started from the call of elections, public gatherings, including political rallies, were completely banned until 23 July, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the same period, members of the government inaugurated public infrastructure projects across the country. It is especially important that the organization of political rallies in open public places is prohibited and that the gatherings are limited to a maximum of 40 individuals in open public places and to 20 people in closed spaces.
Opinion polls showed the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) winning with slim margins, but falling short of the numbers they would need to form a government alone. Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, considered one of Europe's longest-serving leaders, led the DPS. Although some consider him a Western-oriented reformer who has led the country since the end of communism, he faced widespread allegations of corruption and links to organized crime.
A coalition led by the pro-Serbian Democratic Front (DF) and two other opposition coalitions claimed victory over the ruling pro-Western party in parliamentary elections. For the Future of Montenegro, together with the coalitions Peace is our Nation and Black and White, won 41 of 81 seats in the Balkan country's elections on August 30, according to preliminary unofficial results released by the Center for Monitoring and Research (CEMI) monitoring organization. The unofficial result is based on 88.4 percent of ballots from a sample of polling stations, CEMI said. The preliminary unofficial results show the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), the Bosniak and Albanian National Minority Party, the Social Democrat Ivan Brajovic, and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) among the parties claiming the remaining seats.
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