Montenegro’s Presidential Elections Remain Tight After a Year of Political Deadlock
Montenegro holds a crucial presidential election Sunday as Milo Djukanovic, incumbent leader for nearly three decades, faces a formidable challenge from a Western-educated economist who has pledged a much-needed change of direction after a year of political deadlock.
Djukanovic, 61, has controlled Montenegro as president or prime minister for 33 years, since the beginning of the breakup of the old federal Yugoslavia. Opponents have long accused the ex-communist and his party of running the tiny Adriatic republic as their fiefdom, allegations they deny.
His challenger in Sunday’s second round of elections is Jakov Milatović, 37, a former economy minister and vice president of the Europe Now movement who advocates closer ties with both the European Union and the Serbian former Yugoslav republic.
Djukanovic received 35.37% of the vote in the first round of the election on 19 March, with Milatović receiving 28.92%, necessitating a run-off where neither secured a majority of 50%.
Analysts said the results portended a close run.
Djukanovic will count on the traditional support of national minorities, Montenegrins living abroad and pro-Western parties who abstained in the first round.
Milatović relied on the support of the pro-Serb, pro-Russian Democratic Front and its leader Andrija Mandic, who on March 19 received 19.3%, but also from other smaller parties including the now ruling Ura Party, a pro-Western group.
Djukanovic has led Montenegro since the collapse of the old Yugoslavia, initially as an ally of the then Serbian nationalist strongman Slobodan Milosevic, before breaking with him and adopting a pro-Western agenda.
Montenegro, whose economy relies on tourism generated by its picturesque mountains and beaches, abandoned a state union with the much larger Serbia in 2006 and declared independence. It joined NATO in 2017 and is now a candidate for membership in the European Union.
Djukanovic campaigned for continuity. “We want to continue living as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multicultural and civil country … that wants to be a member of the European Union,” he said.
But analysts said he faced a serious challenge in Sunday’s vote after a year of political instability that saw two governments fall to a vote of no confidence over mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic mismanagement and a disputed agreement governing relations with the Orthodox Serbs. church.
A dispute between lawmakers and Djukanovic over his refusal to name a new prime minister has deepened the political paralysis.
Focus on corruption
Opponents accuse Djukanovic and his centre-left Socialist Democratic Party of corruption, nepotism and links to organized crime in the country of about 620,000 people, accusations that Djukanovic and the DPS deny.
Zarijabegović, Lecturer in Economics at Mediterraneo University: “Djukanovic not only allowed the elite to accumulate great wealth… He tried to convince… the poor that they are where they are because they deserve no better.” In the capital, Podgorica, according to Reuters.
Milatović, who was the economy minister in the government that came to power on the back of pro-Serb religious assemblies in 2020, co-founded the Europe Now movement in 2022 pledging to curb graft, secure better living standards and strengthen ties with Serbia.
“I am here to lead Montenegro to success because for too long we have been led by losers,” Milatović said at a campaign rally.
Vladimir Pavesević of the Association for Policy Research of Montenegro said Milatović could win over former supporters of the DPS — now the largest party in parliament — with his promise of a fresh start.
“An atmosphere has been created… It shows that Milatović is a politician who brings new directions and opportunities… There are a large number of people who voted for DPS and now they are willing to vote for Milatović,” Pavesević told the Belgrade daily newspaper “Milatović”.
On 16 March, Djukanovic dissolved parliament and held snap elections on 11 June.
Although the presidency is largely ceremonial, it has key powers to name prime ministers, dissolve parliament and call elections. Whoever wins the presidential election will boost his party’s chances in June.
Montenegro has a legacy of bitter divisions between those who consider themselves Montenegrins and those who consider themselves Serbs and oppose the country’s independence.
The country joined NATO after a 2016 coup attempt that the Djukanovic government blamed on Russian agents and Serbian nationalists. Moscow has dismissed such accusations as absurd, and Serbia has denied involvement.
After invading Ukraine last year, Montenegro signed up to EU sanctions against Russia. The Kremlin has put Montenegro on its list of unfriendly countries.
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