Montenegro's Local Elections: Testing the National Temperature (Background Briefing)
Europe Briefing N°11
26 May 2000
Local elections are to be held in Podgorica and Herceg-Novi, two of Montenegro's 21 municipalities, on 11 June 2000. Their significance is wider than the simple question of who governs the two local authorities, for these will be the first elections in Montenegro since the victory of the "For a Better Life" coalition (DZB) under president Milo Djukanovic in general elections in May 1998. For this reason the results will be widely interpreted as a comment on the performance of Djukanovic so far, and a barometer of the political mood in the republic as a whole.
The government did not want to hold these elections at this time. They were caused deliberately by the pro-independence Liberal Alliance (LSCG), who broke off 1998 local coalition agreements with the DZB in September 1999. The significance of these two localities is that they are the only places in Montenegro where the LSCG hold the balance of power. In most other municipalities either the DZB governs alone (11) or the Socialist People's Party (SNP) governs alone (4) or with allies (2). Exceptions are Ulcinj, where the Albanian parties Democratic Union of Albanians (DUA) and Democratic Alliance (DS) hold most of the seats, and Plav where the DZB is strongest but Bosniak and Albanian parties hold the balance.
The Liberals gave as the reason for breaking off the coalitions that they were unhappy with the way the DZB was running the municipalities, that pre-election claims had not been honoured. But they also felt - and it is universally believed that this was the real reason for forcing the elections - that the cause of Montenegrin independence was gaining public support, and that the Liberals' poll ratings were recovering from a bad result in 1998 - this is in essence the "change of public mood" referred to by LSCG leaders. The Liberals assert that there is little to choose between the two main opposing blocks in Montenegrin politics (DZB/SNP), and that a strong LSCG is the best guarantee of honest and principled government. So the LSCG hopes that a good result for them will put pressure on the government to move faster towards the long-mooted referendum on Montenegro's status, but also bring better, more open government at all levels. Still, with no chance of winning their best hope this time is to re-enter coalitions with the DZB, but from a position of increased strength and influence.
For the government, it will be useful if it can gain enough votes to govern the two municipalities without the LSCG. But its main need is to show that the support they it gained in 1998 is holding up. Politically DZB does not need to win either Podgorica or Herceg-Novi outright, since the Liberals have made it clear they will not work with the SNP, but it does need to be able to show that in the republic as a whole support for the reformist, internationalist course the DZB has followed is not crumbling.
For the pro-Yugoslavia SNP the stakes are higher still.2 The government only needs to hold on to the level of support it already has, but the SNP must do better than in 1998. Victory in either election would strengthen the party's claim that its true support is much higher than published polls suggest, and that the government does not enjoy the support of a majority of voters. It would also give the SNP for the first time a municipality in the southern part of the country, important symbolically to show that their support is not confined to the highlands. Herceg-Novi looks the easier target, but Podgorica is the bigger prize: an SNP victory there would be a major embarrassment to the government. Even a close failure in Podgorica coupled with victory in Herceg-Novi would give the party a platform from which to call insistently for early general elections.3 But clear defeat in both places would demonstrate that voters still have faith in Djukanovic, that the pro-Yugoslavia and pro-Milosevic message is not gaining support.
European Union (EU) support for Djukanovic could hardly be clearer: commenting on a new package of EU aid on 8 May 2000, the EU's head of Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana called it an "excellent decision, bearing in mind important elections in Montenegro in June."4 EU Commissioner Chris Patten made a high-profile visit to Podgorica on 15 May. Americans by contrast have been keeping quiet and out of sight, but no-one doubts their support for Djukanovic.
Electoral procedures give a slight advantage to coalitions over friendly parties running separately.5 Pre-election coalitions function as a single party, but if no one list wins enough seats to govern outright there can be post-election coalitions or alliances. Whoever can command most votes in the municipal council becomes mayor, usually but not necessarily the head of the list which received most votes. The head of the party list carries an important responsibility as, in effect, the leader and public face of that party's campaign. But, as in other list systems, the head of the winning list is not obliged to become mayor; having won the election he can hand over the responsibility to a colleague. Thus the election campaign does not automatically determine who will become mayor, but it does determine the balance of forces in the municipal council, which in turn elects the mayor.