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Montenegro's presidential poll: corruption, NATO and the east-west power struggle

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Montenegro's presidential poll: corruption, NATO and the east-west power struggle

Montenegro's presidential poll: corruption, NATO and the east-west power struggle
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This tiny European country could be about to make a big statement as to whether it favours east or west.

Montenegro, which has a population of 620,000 people, is going to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president.

Voters have several candidates to choose from but experts say the race is between the pro-western Milo Dukanovic and businessman Mladen Bojanic, who favours closer ties with Russia and Serbia.

What do we know about Montenegro?

Montenegro — bordered by Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo and Albania — is relatively young as a sovereign state.

It was part of communist Yugoslavia but after its break-up Montenegro became part of new state created in 2002 with Serbia.

However, in 2006 it held a controversial independence referendum and 55% of voters backed a split from Serbia.

Who are the main candidates?

Milo Dukanovic: The 56-year-old (top left) is a candidate for the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) and favourite to win Sunday’s race.

“He’s the towering figure of Montenegrin politics since 1991,” said Professor Florian Bieber, an expert on Balkan politics from the University of Graz in Austria. “He’s been prime minister six times and president once.

“Even the times when he’s had no elected office he’s been head of the DPS party, which has been dominant in Montenegro.

“There are few politicians who have been as dominant and as important for nearly three decades.”

Bieber said while Dukanovic’s popularity is high, he’s also a polarising figure because he took the decision to have a referendum on Montenegrin independence and join NATO, a controversial move among those who look more towards Russia.

Mladen Bojanic: He’s the independent candidate who doesn’t oppose the prospect of EU membership for Montenegro but leans more in the direction of Moscow, according to Bieber.

The 55-year-old (top, right), an academic by background, was one of the founders of the socially-liberal Positive Montenegro party in 2012.

He left after disagreements with the party leader and is being supported in Sunday’s election by an alliance of opposition parties.

“Bojanic is more orientated towards Russia which resonates with Montenegrins,” said Bieber. “He’s playing to the wider agenda of challenging the corruption and also what parts of the opposition see as the excessively pro-western orientation of the government.”

What are the main issues?

There are two key issues: graft and whether the country is committed to its pro-western path.

Dukanovic denies accusations by the opposition that he fosters cronyism and corruption but some view him as part of the establishment.

His party, DPS, is the successor to the Communist Party and essentially ruled Montenegro since 1945, according to Bieber.

The election should also give a sign as to what future path Montenegrins might want to take: the west or Russia.

But with the president’s powers relatively weak the sign will be largely symbolic.

However, Moscow, which was accused of attempting to interfere before the 2016 parliamentary election in Montenegro, will be keenly-watching Sunday’s vote, Bieber told Euronews.

“If we don’t get a Duvakonic victory in the first round I’d expect to see a lot of engagement on the Russian side, who will see it as an opposition to strengthen its foothold by having Mladen elected,” said Bieber.

How does it work?

Several candidates will go head-to-head in the first round on April 15. If no-one wins a 50% majority there will be a run-off between the most popular candidates in two weeks’ time.

Who will win?

It’s a two-horse race between Dukanovic and Bojanic, according to opinion polls. The question is whether Dukanovic will win in round one or two, said Bieber.

Why should Europeans care?

The poll could provide an indication for whether authoritarians like Milo Dukanovic can be voted out of power even when they are deeply entrenched in the mechanics of the government, said Bieber.

Montenegro, a candidate to join the European Union, could also be a barometer for the wider east-west power struggle, he added.

“We have a lot of authoritarian tendencies across the European continent, you only have to look at the elections in Hungary, Serbia and Poland to some degree,” Bieber told Euronews

“These autocrats work through formal democratic means but retain power through undemocratic tools as well. Milo Dukanovic is to some degree the prototype of that. He’s been doing it for 28 years.

“Whether or not somebody, who has established this entrenched system can be voted out of office or not is one of the questions that is much larger than the Montenegrin question. Can you lose elections if you have this entrenched power structure?

“The other thing is the pro-western, anti-western divide that plays out in elections more widely.

“The divide that you have in Montenegro you also have in a number of other countries in south-eastern Europe: Serbia, Bosnia and to some extent FYR Macedonia.

“So to which degree do this fairly-divided public lean towards the west or are they accepting candidates that are less clear-cut in terms of western orientation?”