From crypto to cringe – election campaigns in 2023 Montenegro Parliamentary election in Montenegro 2023 (strategic-communication perspective)


The election campaign is the top of the political communication pyramid and the final step of the political campaign. A good and intelligent political campaign lasts every day of exercising power or opposition work, from the moment of taking office until election day. By no means with the same topics, the same messages, or the same intensity, but it should last continuously. Election campaigns exist to mobilize voters. They are not there to apologize on someone’s behalf or to overexplain something. Campaigns cannot make great candidates out of bad candidates, but they can make winners out of candidates who know what they are doing and, more importantly, who know how to listen. The aim of this analysis is not to moralize or sentimentalize. The aim is to analyse what was seen in the recently ended parliamentary elections according to the elements of the content, structure, and logic of the election campaign, to acknowledge the good, the mediocre and the bad. The diversity of the political offer and the wealth of nuances that characterize the Montenegrin political space makes such an analysis appropriate. In each election result, the structure and performance of the campaign come together. Therefore, a bad campaign should not be perceived as something that by itself makes the difference between 0 and n%, but as the cost of a missed opportunity to grow additionally (sometimes even strongly) in relation to the structural and given.

Note: the author did not create or in any way participated in any campaign in Montenegro. Minority lists were excluded from the analysis due to the different ways of voting and the topics/motivation of voters in such elections.

Spajić sets the topic and pace, the others swallow the bait and miss their opportunities (It’s time! – Europe now!)

In this campaign, Europe now had a perceptual advantage over all other actors. On the one hand, the abundance of interest and emotional points among voters due to the distribution of funds through the original Europe now programme, and on the other hand, the impression of inexhaustibility and uncompromisingness in the eyes of the average voter. This was followed by the instinct of Milojko Spajić, who imposed both topics and tact in the campaign, precisely those that correspond exclusively to him, while the other actors, unintelligently, swallowed that bait, competing with what they cannot reach and thereby unconsciously stifling their growth and mobilization. This approach opened to Spajić immeasurably greater manoeuvring space for new material promises, which found its way to those voter pools that are suitable for such promises – disillusioned voters of other parties, protesting voters, voters of poor economic status and younger voters.

This does not mean that Europe now campaign was flawless. On the contrary. From a professional-performance point of view, it was generic, occasionally even bad. The visual code remained identical, unrefreshed, reminiscent more of Greek national symbols than of anything from the most widely understood Montenegrin context. The videos were modest in terms of production, but the messages were clear.

The campaign committed several serious mistakes that were not politically punished, partly due to the incompetence of the opposing candidates, partly due to the short period of time leading up to the election in which it took place – the initial tensions between Spajić and Milatović, the unclear party situation with Odović, Milović’s statement about ‘decontamination’, pro-Putin/anti-NATO positions from the past of certain officials, insane wrangling via press release with Fidelity consulting… The last one demonstrated that Spajić is not strongly entrenched in his programme position, and that he can be thrown off balance. However, no company and no non-governmental organization can do the political-perception job – the job of the opposing candidates.

Europe now profited a little more from the Do Kwon affair than those who hoped to use it to denounce Spajić and his group – the fact that some actors united against him in that matter and at the last minute, in the photo finish of the campaign, among at least part of the voters, created the impression of an old system that forcefully resists change, with no interest in true clarification the issue.

In the campaign, the group tried to expand the number of people who act on its behalf – Ivanović, Milović, Čarapić… Fewer reasons for this were logistical (plenty of invitations for guest appearances, and a limited number of those who can do them without risking damage), the larger part was an attempt to present the group as something broader and richer than the Spajić-Milatović axis.

The campaign more or less succeeded in the key element – hit the message that could present to its target voter pools at that moment, consistently stuck to that message and paired it with the slogan that empowered it – ‘It’s time.

Mandić and Knežević restored to factory settings (Truth. Justice. Finally! – For the future of Montenegro – NSD, DNP, RP)

The dominant part of the former Democratic Front came into this campaign somewhat weakened, not because of Medojević’s departure, who remained in the Parliament for many years mainly on the votes of NSD and DNP, but because of Andrija Mandić‘s failure in the presidential elections. The burden was even greater because enormous funds, abundant energy, and considerable foreign operational assistance were invested in that presidential campaign. It seems that the coalition has completely given up on trying to include a broader electorate – the message of the necessity of reconciliation has disappeared, the old ethnic tension has resurfaced, and in this campaign, economic issues have been combined with Serbian national themes. Observing the campaign, it seemed that Mandić and Milan Knežević did not even try to reach those Montenegrin Serbs who consider Montenegrin events more important than those in the Republic of Serbia and entity the Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina, let alone others. The visual code of this campaign was a modified version of the visual code of Mandić’s presidential campaign – the colours remained basically the same, but rearranged in a manner that no longer resembles the Armenian flag, and the previous stylistic decorations (wings, feathers) were removed. Moreover, the production was noticeably more modest than in Mandić’s presidential campaign. This indicates the absence of expert campaign teams and/or a lower budget for the campaign (this time).

Mandić and Knežević’s activation in a regime rally in another country, in an emotionally extremely sensitive situation for Serbs, and Knežević’s viral speech pose a very questionable benefit (and apparent harm). This could have given Mandić and Knežević the attribute of belonging to a certain version of Serbianhood, if it was considered to be beneficial in Montenegro, but at the same time, it inevitably brought them the attribute of political subordination, or maybe even servility. The question is how much such an approach made sense in Montenegro, a political arena with a widespread tradition of freedom, regardless of whether the specific voter identifies as Serbian or Montenegrin.

Towards the end of the campaign, a stronger engagement of coalition members, primarily Knežević, against Milojko Spajić, could be noticed. The timing and suspicions of coordinated attacks on Spajić with Abazović did not benefit either Knežević or Abazović in terms of perception.

The arrest of Milo Božović and the support of Marko Carević to the other pro-Serbian coalition opposing Mandić and Knežević came at a sensitive moment and questioned their fundamental thesis – the necessity of political unity of the Serbian national corpus in Montenegro and their status as the only realistic and legitimate representatives of it.

The campaign slogan – ‘Truth. Justice. Finally!’ – was a failure and out of step with the reality. Namely, justice and truth are powerful concepts, but they have been widely used in politics and have therefore become clichés. More importantly, if something arrives finally, after a long time, it implies that it is something new and superior. Since the former Democratic Front participated in the parliamentary majority and economic processes in Montenegro over the past three years, and now offers justice and truth, and – finally, it would mean that itself was injustice and a lie, and that now it is fighting with itself in the campaign.

The question arises – what is the fundamental emotional message that the campaign aimed for – it is difficult to successfully unify solar energy sources, a regime rally in another country, Joanikije, changing the state flag, Chinese investments, all in one campaign…

Far from the old glory, far from the emotion (Together! For the future that belongs to you – DPS, SD, LP, DUA)

DPS entered this campaign with the mortgage of a series of defeats and political decline, and under the threat of attributes of alienation and exhaustion. In order to stop the decline, the party faced two strategic demands in this campaign – the unification/consolidation of all pro-Montenegrin options and the awakening of long-gone emotions – voter mobilization and a result that at least somewhat gravitates to Đukanović’s result from the second round of presidential elections. The first has been achieved to some extent, the second has not.

DPS placed a significant emphasis on their programme during the campaign. That was a mistake for several reasons. Programmes alone do not win elections. While it is customary to present a programme during a campaign, in practice, most programmes, including this one, tend to be a bidding of promises and desires rather than genuine action plans. More importantly, DPS fails to recognize that they first need to earn a situation where the average voter is willing to listen to what they have to say about public policies and what (credible) offerings they provide. After three decades in power and a series of missed opportunities, along with being ousted from power and experiencing multiple defeats, the party in that situation needs a comprehensive rebranding process to get into a position to again offer and promise to the average voter, especially those outside their loyal core. This is a profound and thorough process that takes several years and is not suitable for a campaign period – which is characterized by brief, rapid, and emotional communication with voters. In that sense, DPS and its partners expended energy on something that was inherently fruitless.

The coalition had inconsistent and uncoordinated messages. While the nominal focus was on the programme and the future, while in communication, both in public appearances and on social media, they conveyed something entirely different – a tone of concern and warnings about anti-Montenegrin and corrupt elements that pose a threat to the country’s survival and European path of Montenegro.

In this campaign, social media also proved to be a place where DPS does not do well – party leaders wandered between outrage, arguments, humour… The visual code of the campaign was surprisingly amateurish. For the sake of comparison, in the Podgorica campaign ‘Everyone for our city’ DPS had the wrong tactics and weak messages, but visually the code was at a significantly higher level.

This was one of the many other consecutive campaigns in which DPS did not have a campaign video that could effectively mobilize voters. The recordings primarily focused on visits to local organizations and party rallies. The videos that were released towards the end of the campaign, labelled as ‘spots,’ highlighting the dangers posed by the opposing candidates, could have served as decent secondary material. However, due to flawed scripts and generic execution, they fell short of being effective spots. A spot is high-quality video content that makes a difference for former and undecided voters in terms of whether they go out and vote or not. It is an ultra-emotional and ultra-motivating impulse to vote, a call to action timed just before the election silence.

The slogan, and also the name of the coalition (‘Together! For the future that belongs to you’), was below average, it did not have a mobilizing or differentiating effect due to worn-out terms together and future, unclear wording about belonging, strong similarities in the name with another coalition, but also loose similarities in name with another coalition.

Montenegrin, but tepid and contentious (For our house – SDPCG)

SDP entered this campaign alone, without the DPS and its partners, which certainly resulted in a lack of synergy on both sides and influenced all actors in that part of the political scene. The fundamental messages of the campaign – a mixture of sovereignty and Euro-optimism – were clear but insufficiently sharpened.

The main campaign video recognized important emotional moments for the target electorate (Montenegrin flag, Mausoleum on Lovćen, viewpoint, the necessity of unity), but the modest technical level and (probably) limited budgets affected its execution and final product, making it noticeably weaker than it could have been.

The campaign paid too much attention to the support of foreign politicians, which is an old (low) civic awareness of Montenegrin politics, while not emphasizing its own strengths and the support of prominent domestic figures enough.

It is unclear what was intended to be achieved through indirect accusations and distancing from the DPS. For differentiation from DPS and taking over part of DPS’s voters it would have been sufficient to impose their content and energy in contrast to the low-energy campaign of the DPS, rather than relying on words and resentment. Voters do not reward such approaches.

The visual identity of the campaign was in line with the messages sent, with colours and shapes that correlated, including a stylized depiction of the interior entrance to the mausoleum as a detail. However, it was evident that it was work of in-house capacity and not professionally done.

The campaign slogan ‘For our house’ correlated with the messages, but there was a missed opportunity to sharpen the campaign with a stronger slogan that would truly emphasize the Montenegrin national narrative, especially since this party was the only one fully committed to it. ‘For our house’ can be interpreted as a national message about Montenegro as the only home, as a shared house, but, due to its mildness, it also reminds one of many similar civic and pseudo-civic phrases that have been promoted by more or less all Montenegrin political actors lately (sincerely or not). Everyone else is talking about Montenegro as a common home, in those or similar words.

Abazović absorbed Bečić (We count bravely – Aleksa and Dritan – URA, DCG)

Throughout the entire campaign ‘We count bravely – Aleksa and Dritan’, it was noticeable that there were many instances of Dritan being prominently featured while Aleksa was given relatively little visibility. Abazović started this campaign after his modest position in the electorate began to narrow even more, in a situation of an increasingly widespread perception that he wants to stay in power at all costs. From the beginning, the coalition itself was in the shadow of former fierce conflicts between Democrats and URA, and political opponents did not have to put in much effort to present Bečić and Abazović as partners out of necessity in the mission of political survival – it was enough to extract headlines, statements and videos of mutual confrontations from the recent past.

The fundamental message of the campaign, highlighting the bravery of the two leaders and that Montenegro is on the right track, was not aligned with the perception of the average voter. The attribute of courage was not something that the average Montenegrin voter subconsciously associated with these leaders. Bečić was seen as calm, conciliatory, but occasionally unclear in his positions, while Abazović was seen as likeable, jovial, but sometimes unreliable in loyalty. At a time when Europe now was offering tectonic changes, playing on the frustration and desire for change among the broader masses, it was politically unwise to claim that everything was fine, on the right track, or autopilot. Due to the arrest of Rade Milošević, Abazović’s space in the fight against corruption was narrowing, and at times, the campaign seemed to lack a clear agenda. During field visits to certain parts of Montenegro, messages were sent that more closely resembled something a politician from the former Democratic Front would say rather than a declared civic option.

Abazović’s dominance over Bečić was also evident in the domain of visual branding. The campaign’s appearance correlated with the newer iterations of URA’s visual code, completely different from anything the Democrats had ever used.

Abazović’s speeches at the end of the campaign provoked increasingly negative reactions, with some former voters and supporters declaring them unpleasant.

It seems that Bečić realized towards the end of the campaign that Abazović, through his campaign privatization and attacks on Spajić, was causing him certain damage both personally and in terms of post-election coalition potential. Towards the very end of the campaign, different messages from the two leaders were noticed. Tensions were read between the lines of the campaign, and Bečić who was eagerly awaiting the end of the campaign.

The slogan ‘We count bravely’ could have worked well in some other campaigns, but due to the aforementioned reasons, it didn’t resonate with the candidates in this particular campaign.

Those who fight, love each other (People’s coalition – United and period. – PCG, SCG, DP, DSS, Movement for Pljevlja)

The coalition started the campaign burdened by past conflicts – the painful split between Vladislav Dajković and Marko Milačić, as well as Krivokapić’s rejection of Dejan Vukšić in favour of Milojko Spajić. However, during the campaign, it seemed that the coalition knew which voters it wanted to reach – it specifically targeted Montenegrin Serbs of national orientation, especially those who were disappointed with the former Democratic Front. It did not attempt to appeal to a broader audience, correctly assessing that there was no chance of success in doing so.

Topics such as decentralization, which would benefit regions of Montenegro with a significant Serbian population, or the necessity of employing Serbs in state institutions, were more explicitly and sharply addressed compared to the campaign of the ‘For the Future of Montenegro’ coalition. However, the implementation of these promises was sometimes questionable, and poorly designed visuals on these topics even caused ridicule.

The campaign expressed support for Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija, but unlike Mandić and Knežević, not to the regime rally in Belgrade, which demonstrates a certain level of political cunning.

The visual design was mediocre. The good idea of interpreting Njegoš’s chapel as a symbolically significant element of the campaign was undermined by poor execution – the bright colours and concentric circles turned the chapel into a shape reminiscent of something Far Eastern, Japanese or Chinese, rather than Montenegrin-Serbian. It remained unclear why all the participants in almost all campaign materials had frowning expressions.

The slogan United and periodwas not good – Serbian parties in Montenegro have always been characterized by disunity, as these elections have also shown. It was Vladislav Dajković himself who declared the end of the Serbian political bloc in the weeks leading up to the elections, only to offer unity and a bloc a few days later as just another politician in line. Unity would imply joining forces with the Coalition ‘For the Future of Montenegro’ and Leposavić, perhaps even with Joković and Lekić, rather than competing separately.

Invisible non-reversal (It’s time for a reversal! – Reversal for Montenegro)

The campaign of the Reversal movement is a textbook example of logistical problems that arise when a campaign starts late and from scratch. In such a situation, it is impossible to achieve key attributes of visibility and recognition, resulting in the campaign going unnoticed by its nature.

Indeed, a more detailed examination of the content of the movement Reversal can give an impression of who they are and what they offer – a green left movement that emphasizes social issues.

But, the average voter is not a person who will studiously search the websites of various internet pages of various lists for hours, compare, weigh and then decide. The voter sees a person, a message, or an emotion. And that is why the campaign of the Reversal movement went almost invisible – the lack of profile of the candidates and the smaller reach of the campaign’s communication channels took their toll.

The little campaign that managed to penetrate the mainstream media consisted of accusations directed at other candidates for plagiarizing parts of the ‘Safe apartment’ programme. However, even in the eyes of the voters, there is no reward for the candidate who may have been harmed. The accusations flying around during the campaign are perceived more as a ‘political squabble’ rather than a situation where someone is right, and someone is wrong.

The slogan ‘It’s time for a reversal!’ it was problematic in many ways. On the one hand, the element ‘It’s time’ was effectively taken away by Europe now with its slogan, much louder, with a far greater reach, and when the campaign offers any kind of reversal, termination, strong change – questions that must be clearly answered by the majority of voters are who offers the reversal, why the reversal is needed, and what is offered after the reversal. To answer these questions – months and months of political work, public appearances, and good advertising are needed, and not the sudden appearance and express offer of a political revolution.

Joković and Lekić condemned to each other (For you – SNP, DEMOS)

SNP and DEMOS started their campaign in gloomy circumstances – their former political partners went their own way and/or did not want to include them in their coalitions, and prominent officials left their parties. The campaign was characterized by a lower level of invested energy – Miodrag Lekić and Vladimir Joković opted for messages whose specific benefits to them were questionable. The Fundamental Agreement, the Census Law, Open Balkan – these are topics on which their opponents are more likely to profit. The few messages that made sense were those focused on Northern Montenegro due to the stronger local party organizations within the coalition and the lingering tradition of voting for SNP out of nostalgia for Momir Bulatović.

The visual code was poor – two visual iterations of the slogan, of which the more frequently used one had incompatible colours and too many elements in a small space, which voters consistently interpret as low-budget and chaotic.

Different individuals and local branches of the coalition parties did not even refresh their social media platforms with campaign materials, which voters could perceive as a lack of motivation from the candidates themselves.

Months before the elections, Joković’s close associates publicly agitated for other candidates, raising the question of whether the campaign itself believed in its own cause, if even its closest supporters were endorsing and choosing other candidates.

The slogan ‘For you’ itself was neither good nor bad, but it was largely underutilized. Instead of pairing it with the policies being offered, even as a possibility for a variety of poster combinations, it was merely used as a decorative element at the end of social media posts.

Medojević runs the lap of honour (Montenegro First – Reforms for the salvation of the country – PZP)

With the disappearance of the Democratic Front prior to the parliamentary elections, Nebojša Medojević found himself in an extremely uncomfortable situation. Like Andrija Mandić and Milan Knežević, Medojević abandoned the previous dominant rhetoric of the Democratic Front regarding Montenegrin-Serbian reconciliation and shifted the focus to reformist rhetoric and direct attacks on Milojko Spajić.

Due to the frequency and intensity of those attacks, which created an impression of a personal conflict, the simultaneous attempt to refresh the personnel of the Movement for Changes (PzP) and shift in their approach, were overshadowed by Medojević’s speeches.

Like other actors, Medojević also fell into the trap of bidding with grand promises, which paradoxically benefited his biggest political rival – Spajić, and Europe now.

The correction of the visual code by introducing the colour red and eliminating yellow was not sufficient to distance PzP from the visual code of the former Democratic Front.

The very slogan ‘Montenegro First – Reforms to the salvation of the country’ might have shone in another campaign and in a larger political group, but in this campaign those elements remained in the shadow of Medojević’s performances, for which it is unclear whether they were even serious in their intentions, or was this Medojević’s cheerful way of saying goodbye to Montenegrin politics.

Ecological, inclusive, cloned (Yes. We can – for civil Montenegro – We can, Civil Montenegro)

Everything that was written about the Reversal list applies to this list as well. Logic dictated a coalition of such groups, but evidently interpersonal relationships did not. It could be understood as a position of the green left wing, with numerous general statements about the environment/social issues/inclusivity, with slightly less coalition identity authenticity compared to Reversal due to the probable (?) adoption of the name from the Croatian political group We can, one of the components of the coalition. The low level of pre-election activities, lack of reach, and invisibility were expected.

The question arises as to whether it was wise at all to attempt to replicate the Croatian or Serbian party identity We can/We must recipe, considering the problems and stagnation that green left-wing groups are facing throughout Europe, and especially considering the notably challenging political landscape in Montenegro where such ideas are politically harder to promote.

The visual identity that the coalition adopted appeared to be a poorer version of a small Alpine agrarian party rather than a green left-wing movement that needs to be able to stand out in the specific Montenegrin context alongside numerous other similar parties and groups – Reversal, URA, and others.

The slogan was generic of the generic – in a country where almost every actor swears by the concept of a civic state, using the slogan ‘For a Civic Montenegro!’ meant signalling the ultimate genericness, and as a consequence – boredom.

The lone rider Leposavić (Justice for all – Vladimir Leposavić)

Vladimir Leposavić faced a challenging task – finding his place in the electoral landscape alongside older and/or more connected political groups such as Mandić/Knežević, Lekić/Joković, and Dajković/Milačić/Vukšić.

Still, in Leposavić’s campaign, there was no sense that he was addressing solely Montenegrin Serbs or predominantly Montenegrin Serbs. The emphasis of the campaign was on the concept of justice. However, several problems emerged in relation to this concept. Justice may appear to be a powerful term, as voters express their concern for justice, and politicians pledge to uphold it. Yet, when it comes to embodying justice, making it relatable to the voters, and presenting it in an engaging manner, most politicians fall short. Voters hypocritically prioritize a range of other issues over justice. What constitutes justice? Is it social equality, draconian punishments, mass arrests, or a Judge Dredd system? How for whom and sometimes.

Leposavić’s narrative about ‘positive legal regulations’ and ‘genuine justice’ (compared to the perceived injustice of others, presumably) seemed to lack the ability to engage or evoke emotions, resulting in it being perceived as dull.

Leposavic’s visual code, especially the logotype, were unclear. The colours and shades differed from the competition, but in the domain of the logotype, did someone suggest a lion because of certain symbolism, or did he decide to follow the example of the logo of the British political party UKIP, the European parliamentary group ECR, the football Premier League, or in the last something sped up at the moment just enough to have it – it will remain a mystery.

Aleksandar Musić, Communication and political consultant, Croatia

Note: All media outlets are free to use this text with attribution to the author, and the text is published through the programme of the Centre for Civic Education (CCE), supported by the Core grant of the regional project SMART Balkans – Civil Society for a Connected Western Balkans, implemented by the Center for the Promotion of Civil Society (CPCD), the Center for Research and Public Policy (CRPM), and the Institute for Democracy and Mediation (IDM), with financial support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Norway.

The content of the text is the sole responsibility of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of CPCD, CRPM, IDM, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Norway.