A fresh face and dirty games in Montenegro’s presidential election

A fresh face and dirty games in Montenegro’s presidential election
Montenegro’s incumbent president Milo Djukanovic and political newcomer Jakov Milatovic of Europe Now are fighting for the pro-EU centre ground in this weekend's presidential election. / Europe Now / DPS
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia March 16, 2023

Montenegro’s incumbent president Milo Djukanovic faces the most serious challenge to his dominance of Montenegrin politics in three decades from the newest face in politics – Europe Now’s candidate Jakov Milatovic.

To make the March 19 race even more intriguing, the far-right pro-Russian co-leader of the Democratic Front (DF), Andrija Mandic, is also competing for the post against the Western-oriented Djukanovic and Milatovic.

The vote will be held amid the deepest political crisis Montenegro has faced since its independence from Serbia in 2006 with the parliament unable to form a new government after bringing down the government of Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic last summer, and Djukanovic pushing for a new general election.

Djukanovic, Milatovic and Mandic are seen as the strongest of the seven candidates, and the only ones with a real chance of getting to the second round runoff. 

Djukanovic, the leader of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), has ruled Montenegro for more than three decades either as prime minister or as president. Although seen as pro-reformist and pro-Western, during his lengthy time in power he has been involved in several corruption scandals and many Montenegrins want to see him out of politics.

It was the fervent wish to oust Djukanovic and the DPS that inspired 20 small parties to form the first first ruling coalition in independent Montenegro that excluded the long-ruling party. Varying from far-right and pro-Russian to pro-Western and civic, the coalition gained a majority in parliament after the August 2020 general election. Milatovic was a member of the government led by Zdravko Krivokapic, while Mandic’s Democratic Front was among the parties that backed it. 

However, apart from the strong desire to remove the DPS and its leader from power, the members of the coalition had little in common and was unable to carry out reforms. As the alliance fractured, Djukanovic and his party were widely expected to return to the stage as winners. However, local elections held in several municipalities last year showed that the party is losing supporters instead.

A quiet takeover

While the DPS seems to be struggling to regain power, Europe Now, formed by two ex-ministers who served under Krivokapic – Milatovic and Milojko Spajic – seems to be quickly taking over what was once the DPS’ territory. Just a few months after its creation, the party won in 11 out of 14 municipalities in the October 23 local elections. (Montenegro has 23 municipalities but they do not hold local elections at the same time.)

The loss of the DPS' majority in Podgorica in particular was seen as a punishment for Djukanovic’s rather counter-productive role in the ongoing political crisis in the country.

Initially, Europe Now nominated Spajic as its presidential candidate. However, he was disqualified due to suspicions he has Serbian citizenship. Montenegrin law does not allow people with dual citizenship to run for the presidency.

Spajic’s disqualification by the central election body, DIK, was quick and did not wait for the completion of a probe launched by the Ministry of Interior. This gave food to speculation that DIK’s decision was influenced by the DPS as Spajic was seen as a serious threat to Djukanovic. DIK members representing the DF also voted to disqualify Spajic.

Shortly after that, Europe Now nominated Milatovic. However, his campaign did not go smoothly. In Cetinje, Montenegro’s old capital, a group of people attacked Milatovic on his way to a pre-election gathering. He was not wounded, but Europe Now claimed the group was organised by the DPS. Another group of people, also accused of being supporters of the DPS, attempted to prevent Milatovic’s meeting with supporters in the town of Niksic over the last campaign weekend.

Meanwhile, there has been no reaction to a complaint by the head of the LGBT Forum Progres NGO, Bojana Jokic, filed with the constitutional court against Djukanovic’s nomination. Jokic said he cannot run for a third term and claimed that the DIK wrongly interpreted the law by confirming Djukanovic’s candidacy. However, this interpretation is controversial as when Djukanovic served as president between 1998 and 2002, Montenegro was part of a loose state union with Serbia.

Jokic claimed that, according to Montenegrin law, one person can be a president for no more than ten years regardless of whether these were ten consecutive years or not, and if he wins, Djukanovic would rule the country as head of state much longer.

Warnings of Russian interference 

In the weeks before the March 19 vote, there were suggestions that Russia could try to interfere in Montenegro’s vote. Gabriel Escobar, US deputy assistant secretary overseeing policy towards the countries of the Western Balkans, warned that Russia will try to intervene in Montenegro’s presidential election, provoking internal tensions and clashes in the period until the March 19 vote. Escobar said that Russia would use traditional channels for disinformation.

Milan Jovanovic, analyst at the Montenegrin Digital Forensic Centre, said in March that Russian intervention in Montenegrin politics strengthened after the 2020 general election when large pro-Russian parties became part of the ruling coalition. Jovanovic said that Russia has been trying to interfere in Montenegrin politics since 2014 but that strengthened after the change of power.

"[The Russian intervention has become stronger] since the 2020 election and the change of power, and since the predominantly pro-Russian and pro-Serbian structures participate in the executive power, which gives freedom to domestic proxies to act," Jovanovic told Radio Free Europe.

There have already been warnings of possible electoral frauds as the electoral roll has not been updated despite revelations back in 2020 that there were more than 50,000 “phantom voters”. The voting process will be observed by an OSCE mission. 

Experience vs expertise

With both Djukanovic and Milatovic aiming to occupy the pro-EU centre ground, the debate has come down to a question of political experience versus expertise gained outside the political arena. 

Djukanovic said that the election will determine whether Montenegro will develop as a modern, free, civil European state, or if it will accept a position humbly serving other countries’ interests. He compared the March 19 vote with that in 1997 when he was elected president for the first time — highlighting his status as one of Europe’s longest-ruling leaders. 

On the other hand, political newcomer Milatovic said it was time for Montenegrins to vote for people who have knowledge and expertise.

The 36-year-old graduated in economics in Montenegro and subsequently at the University of Oxford, and pursued an international banking career before entering politics. He has worked for Ljubljana-based NLB Bank, Deutsche Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

Mandic disputed Milatovic’s claim that Montenegro needs experts, saying that Djukanovic could only be ousted from power by someone as experienced in politics as he is. Like Djukanovic, Mandic has been involved in politics since the 1990s. 

Aleksa Becic, the fourth out of the seven presidential candidates, said that Montenegro’s interests should come first and the pride of parties and candidates must be set aside.

There are three more rivals who do not have any real chance of getting to the second round of the vote: independent Jovan Radulovic, Goran Danilovic of United Montenegro, and Draginja Stankovic of the Social Democratic Party. Stankovic is the only woman competing for the post.

According to DIK, there are 542,154 eligible voters.