Legitimacy Crisis, Montenegro Edition

Can early elections solve the problem of stability of democracy in Montenegro? A commentary on the current political situation by Vladimir Gligorov.

There are two points to start from. One is that democracy requires change in government in addition to free and fair elections. This is a stability requirement, or rather the requirement of the orderly transmission of power, which is the main characteristic of democracy. The other point is that the use of legitimate coercive power against political opponents is a test of legitimacy and risks a legitimacy crisis. If there is one, early elections may be needed to restore legitimacy or, in a more severe crisis, the numbers and the determination of the conflicting parties decide who prevails in the streets.

Executive powers mobilised, rather than dispersed protesters

One mistake that governments make is to use legal and eventually police force to supress the opposition when it tries to take its case to the streets. The risk is that the show of force will mobilise rather than disperse the protesters. The latter is what happened in Montenegro a week or so ago. The opposition staged a protest requesting the resignation of the government and early elections and its leaders followed up with the decision to camp in the centre of the city until these demands were met. With time, the number of people spending night after night in tents was dwindling, which misled the government to send the police to clear the area. Inevitably, force was used, the scenes were ugly and broadcasted, which incited outrage, and the numbers of protesters swelled. That led to the showdown in front of the Parliament on 24 October.

No stability without government legitimacy

Why the clash and why in front of the Parliament? The opposition wants early elections (regular ones are to be held in the first half of next year), but it wants to influence the way those are conducted, i.e. a technical government, changes in the election law, and a review of the list of eligible voters, so it either needs to get the government to agree to these changes or it needs to dictate them. The latter, apparently, they aimed to achieve by storming the Parliament. That led to a violent encounter between the demonstrators and the police in which the government did not give up and did not fall.

The interim score is that the government cannot continue imposing its will by force, but the opposition may have lost the support for the strategy of takeover. So, a compromise with an agreement to check the will of the people in elections is the natural outcome of this legitimacy crisis. Elections are the only feasible way to stabilise democratic legitimacy, early ones if neither side can prevail in the streets when the conflict escalates, as it did in Montenegro.

Successor government wanted

The problem is that it is unclear whether early or regular elections by themselves will solve the problem of stability of democracy in this country. This is because an orderly change in government is needed, which however requires the solution to the problem of succession. Milo Đukanović, the current prime minister, has been the leader of the country, intermittently as the prime minister and the president, for about a quarter of a century now. Clearly, the change in government, irrespective of which party or coalition wins in the elections, implies that somebody needs to succeed him. The party he leads, the Democratic-Socialists, has no contender for the leadership, while the opposition has a structural problem that is often insufficiently understood.

The opposition landscape

To see it, it is necessary to notice that the current leaders of the protests in the streets are unlikely, as things stand now, to win in the elections, early or regular ones. The structure of the political space in this country is such that there are Montenegrin parties in government, there are Montenegrin parties in the opposition, there are Serbian parties in the opposition, and there are parties of the minorities (Albanian and Bosniak). So, for the opposition to win, they need to unite with a programme that they can offer as the alternative to the government’s one. This has proved difficult due to at least three sticking points. One is the independence of Montenegro, which Serbian parties do not endorse fully; the other is the commitment to Euro-Atlantic integrations, which again Serbian parties do not endorse without reservation, and reject when it comes to the membership in NATO; and the third is the role of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which the current government does not want to continue to treat as practically a state church, which is why the Church supports the Serbian opposition.

The Montenegrin opposition might be ready to give up NATO but not the EU and would accommodate the interests of the Church, but it would not be ready to question the independence of the country. Also, the parties of the minorities would go with the Montenegrin opposition, but not with the Serbian one. So, the possible coalition of the opposition parties that can win elections is that of the Montenegrin and the Serbian parties (with the support of the parties of the minorities) with the central role played by the Montenegrin opposition parties. This does not seem what the leaders of the Serbian parties are happy with, which is why the Montenegrin opposition has been unable to win elections and the Serbian party leaders, who are leading the protests, are looking at the legitimacy crisis that will propel them to the control of the government.

Thus, structurally, as long as the Serbian parties are relying on ethnic or national programmes, the majority within the Montenegrins will rule the country, and that have so far been the Democratic-Socialists, while their leader Milo Đukanović will head the government.

Stability of power versus democratic stability

That creates a deficiency in the stability of democracy, which has consequences for the public satisfaction and for the role of civil society. There is no doubt that such a long rule of one party and its leader will raise questions of the control of the resources and opportunities in the country, which the civil society is unhappy about. The shock of the economic crisis and of the post-crisis slow recovery with all the social and labour market problems that go with those is also not helping the government. But that is not decisively reflected in the elections, early ones and the regular ones, at least not so far. The ruling parties have the advantage come election time as they have more resources that they can rely on to win votes, but the electoral outcomes have so far been mostly influenced by the sharp division in the electorate and the sharp turnaround which the election of the opposition with the domination of the Serbian parties would involve. So, voting for the government meant supporting the stability of the structure of power, though that risks the democratic stability, worsens the succession problem, and risks a legitimacy crisis; the latter is unfolding now, while the former will have to be faced in the upcoming elections or at some point in the not too distant future.

A case for EU and US?

The more moderate voices have called for a compromise similar to the one arrived at in the legitimacy crisis in Macedonia earlier this year. That would require the mediation by the EU and the United States and an agreement to hold elections with certain changes in the electoral rules. Early or regular elections should prove stabilising, though those leading the protests at the moment do not stand to win. Which is why there may be a way to go before a compromise is reached. And then there is still the succession problem and that of an orderly change in government.