When the political elite underestimate citizens – Parliamentary elections in Montenegro

Centre for Civic Education (CCE) and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) published an analysis ’When the political elite underestimates the citizens – Parliamentary elections in Montenegro’,which gives a post-election insight into findings of the public opinion research on series of socio-political issues conducted before the elections, which had a reflection on the election offers but can be also instructive for political actors in the coming period.

The authors of this publication are prof. dr Zoran Stojiljkovic from the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Belgrade, Milos Vukanovic, historian and advisor at the CCE and Daliborka Uljarevic, Executive Director of the CCE, who is also the editor of the publication.

The analysis emphasizes the significant emancipation of the citizenry, despite turbulent transition fractures and the lack of adequate leadership, which responsible politicians and leaders must keep in mind and think outside the scope of the projected result or narrow party interests.

The authors consider that the results of the last elections in Montenegro are a consequence of numerous factors and facts that the outgoing government has neglected, and the future one must not ignore. This includes the fact that the citizens of Montenegro are more mature than seen by political elites, that they believe in themselves and changes perhaps even more than it is tolerable for politicians, as well as that there is a formed set of political-ideological-value norms and an undoubted orientation towards the EU. Hence, changes upon parliamentary elections should be considered as the beginning of the process of establishing political accountability that citizens require and which can act as an incentive for the dynamization of internal reform interventions, with the note of the authors that there is no perfect government but also that no government in Montenegro will carry the aureole of irremovability.

Indications of change are also noticeable through low assessment of the level of democracy and (dis)satisfaction with the quality of life, and those were not limited to the opposition electorate, because neither the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) nor coalition partners convinced the majority, including part of their electorate, that the state is moving in the right direction. This is accompanied by a lower level of trust in key electoral institutions (Parliament, Government, President), and pillars of the rule of law (judiciary, Prosecution) than in civil society actors (church, NGOs, media). This leads to the conclusion that when political actors of limited rating come into conflict, or at least seriously dispute with social actors and institutions that have trust as a resource, change becomes probable and self-imposed.

Besides, the electoral will is defined by issues on standard and quality of life, care for the life perspective, youth, i.e. advocacy for less corruption and more social justice and equality. This, alongside with the high valuation of democracy in this research, is evident both through the identification and condemnation of undemocratic electoral practices. For the citizens of Montenegro, democracy and social justice are almost synonymous, which is also one of the key messages of the participants in this research. In this context, the Law on freedom of religion or belief, whose adoption one-fifth of respondents perceived as a key election issue, has the role of an additional mobilizing factor that motivates a significant part of the electorate.

Probably the most significant, encouraging, and revolutionary finding compared to previous researches, which supports the process of democratic maturation of Montenegro, is the identified fatigue of the citizens of Montenegro from firm leaders. The authors assess that it seems that citizens have announced a call and launched a search for democratic, participatory leadership that will look for answers to challenges through dialogue and compromise within strong institutions.

The political and ideological beliefs of Montenegrin citizens are traditionally overshadowed by proclaimed national preferences, which have, to a large extent, shaped every election in Montenegro since the establishment of the multi-party system in 1991. Still, this does not exclude the voters’ determination in elections according to the ideological determinants of civil/national, west/east, centralization/ decentralization, etc. Therefore, part of the conducted research focused on the attempt to determine how citizens see themselves on the political spectrum and what kind of state citizens aspire to. The answer is that Montenegrin society is pro-Western with a strong leftist orientation and that there are traditional norms that must always be taken into account, but which can live within a liberal framework.

The citizens of Montenegro predominantly consider themselves leftists. That percentage is the highest in the region, which should already be instructive in terms of expectations for the new government. It would also be important for political parties to work more on their ideological profile, as they are generally not recognized by the determinants that stand in their name or the party’s programme.

Under the given circumstances, the prevailing view is that for the sake of the state interest, national and religious affiliation should be put on the back burner. This also indicates that the electorate did not change its attitude towards Montenegrin statehood, but that it punished the DPS in the elections for extensive manipulating this issue.

The data that the vast majority of citizens (83.8%) believe that they can be the bearers of change, whether it is a direct (49.1%) or partial (34.7%) impact represents a recognition of civil society efforts, but also the basis for further democratic consolidation. The authors emphasized that this certainly must be accompanied by the democratic evolution of the parties from both the current and the former government.

A clear orientation towards the values of Western societies, social justice and respect for local specific traditional values is indisputable. The EU is perceived as Montenegro’s most important foreign policy partner, followed by Russia and the USA. The positioning of the USA behind Russia is obviously a consequence of the lower level of US engagement in Montenegro since Montenegro became a member of the NATO alliance. Amongst those who want to leave Montenegro, young and educated people are in the lead, and they see their future mostly in the West. These issues, although important, were not the focus of the recent elections.

The concluding remarks indicate that the new government, if it wants to use its term of office, must be unequivocally pro-Western, civic-oriented, inclusive and consistent in respecting the proclaimed principles in practice, emphasizing key control mechanisms from the strong and motivated opposition, the NGO sector, the media, the international community, with cohabitation with the president, but also the three coalitions, which will have reason to closely monitor each other. The first major exam will be the personnel plan, which must satisfy the principles of competence and political responsibility, but also the commitment to strengthening the state of Montenegro, state authors. The capacity and duration of new authorities will largely depend on the ability to recognise what is possible and effective. In this, of course, it is not enough to count on a majority of one MP, which underlines the necessity to engage national minority parties and to expand support for unblocking the judiciary as well, they noted. Moreover, this will imply a combination of discontinuance and democratic deflection from the clientelistic and partocratic practice of the previous government with calming social and political tensions, renouncing revanchism and undertaking existing international commitments, as concluded in the analysis.

Maja Marinovic, Programme associate