By Sanja Rasovic*
Montenegrins want change at this weekend’s parliamentary elections, but the elite that has ruled for nearly three decades has tried to manipulate the political process to ensure it remains in power.
On Sunday, an election battle will be waged in Montenegro over the fate of the longest-serving regime in Europe.
The country has been dominated by the regime of one party and indeed by one man for 27 years, but many believe that this system, which exchanged its ‘communist overcoat’ for a ‘democratic veil’, combines the worst of both.
Though free and fair polls are a constitutional obligation, all of the elections held to date in Montenegro have been marked by countless violations.
In exchange for votes, state resources have been abused, personal IDs bought, utility bills written off, a blind eye turned to illegal land development, prisoners paroled, welfare distributed, and more.
The local and international public has also been introduced to the concept of ’one employee, four votes’ (the parties in power offering the jobs to the potential voters expecting a support from their families) . Although some low-ranking executors of this system have ended up in court, those who ordered this abuse have remained untouchable.
NGOs have filed over 1,500 charges in the last two months concerning disrespect for the legal requirement for public bodies to be transparent in their use of funds. Civil society has assessed that the National Election Committee is neither independent nor professional.
The economic environment in which citizens vote has nothing in common with the pre-election promises being issued.
The state is almost without an economy, having sold off all its property to its businessmen under the neo-liberal economic concept. Many companies are bankrupt, and tens of thousands of workers have lost their jobs.
The state has borrowed more than three annual budgets in only ten years, and domestic and foreign ’investors’ have been paid half a billion euros in guarantees. Half the country’s employees work for the state administration, while more than 40,000 people are unemployed.
Some European media have described Montenegro as a ‘mafia country’. The network that was used during the 1990s, while Montenegro was under sanctions, for tobacco and oil smuggling, has turned towards a more profitable business – narcotics.
Even the former president of parliament, Ranko Krivokapic, who was a ruling coalition partner for 18 years, has spoken about the ties between the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists and organised crime.
The country does not even interfere in conflicts between drug clans that put people in danger. Indeed, the word ‘safety’ has found an entirely new meaning in Montenegro, when you find out from the media that a prisoner in the country’s best-guarded jail, Spuz, was murdered in September during his daily walk by a sniper shooting from the other side of the prison wall.
Although the police apparatus appears powerless, the reality is different when it comes to demonstrations of power over the people. In October 2015, the police used tear gas and truncheons to brutally break up a protest by almost 20,000 people who were expressing dissatisfaction with the situation in the country. Some people were subjected to torture.
Under domestic and international pressure, the country’s leading man, Milo Djukanovic, in April opened the door of his government to opposition representatives in order to demonstrate its democratic capabilities, with the aim of instilling confidence that there will be fair and free elections.
Part of the opposition, for the first time, became involved in government, in ministries, in public enterprises and institutions, in an attempt to control what has been going on.
The opposition took this cheap bait, hoping that Prime Minister Djukanovic was cutting off the branch on which he was sitting. But it realised too late that the centre of power was not in the ministries and bureaucratic apparatus that were given to it.
For a short time, opposition representatives managed sporadically to highlight the excessive spending of state funds and few incidents of misuse of official positions.
The opposition minister did not sign the electoral roll, as required by law, as he believed it was full of irregularities, and the government was forced to appoint someone else to sign it.
However, the election commission has changed the place at which a quarters of the voters in Montenegro will cast their ballots, raising fears that they might not be able to find out where they are registered to vote, and it has also been reported that there are about 40,000 citizens who are on the electoral roll but do not have the right to vote.
Yet even the chief of police, a body controlled by the opposition minister, openly sided with the ruling party on this issue.
And the opposition? The part of the opposition that joined the government has been lulled into comfort by high salaries and benefits, travel costs and allowances, without undertaking a shred of responsibility. It only showed the public the vain face of a loser who has been losing for decades.
The only steps it took were in merciless pursuit of parliamentary seats, not election victory. Talk of a united opposition echoes around the public arena as the only way to change the government, but the finale of the election campaign has foretold that moves in that direction appear to be impossible.
The ruling elite accuses the strongest opposition group, the Democratic Front, of being funded from foreign sources, by the Russian rouble. It is obvious that its money comes from somewhere, but even at the height of the election campaign, these potential violations of the law are irrelevant to both the public and the civil sector.
Society has remained silent to this and accepted the legal violations as compensation for the advantage which the ruling team drains from state resources and criminal sources. However, the inflow of foreign capital has served its purpose and made the opposition’s marketing more creative and better than its rivals’ for the first time.
Politicians in Montenegro have increasingly become aware of the importance of social networks, so they have worked on their web campaigns. It is unknown how much this has cost.
More than a million euros has been spent on media campaigns, according to the latest estimates, or half the annual budget of, for example, the Ministry of Health.
The media scene is polarised. The publicly-owned media, both national and local, in conjunction with private TV channel PinkM and the tabloid Informer, have taken the lead in terms of unprofessionalism, bias and lack of scruples in attacking political opponents, reinforcing the idea that criticism of the ruling elite is actually an attack on the country itself.
These are the first elections in the history of Montenegrin parliamentary democracy in which 17 candidate lists of coalitions and parties and 34 parties are competing. Still, this does not mean that voters are being offered any new ideas and solutions.
Some will not make it past the threshold needed to get into parliament. Others, like the ethnic minority parties, will have representatives in parliament, due to the lower requirements set for minorities. The current government is counting on their support because it has been making deals with minority representatives for a long time
Up to now, these deals have given the government the guarantee of support from six out of a total of 81 MPs in parliament. If this situation repeats itself, the Democratic Party of Socialists needs just 35 more MPs to rule for the next four years – which equates to the support of less than 40 per cent of voters.
As a back-up option, Djukanovic may try to cut other deals with MPs from the opposition parties. It would not be the first time.
George Orwell once said that “all issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia”. How the citizens of Montenegro find their way through this “mass”, if at all, we will find out on Sunday.
*The author is a coordinator at the Montenegrin watchdog Civic Alliance.
The opinions expressed in the comments section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.
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