Montenegrin elections cast uncertainty on Djukanovic's 25-year reign

Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic heads to parliamentary elections Sunday seemingly holding all the cards, but is still facing more electoral uncertainty than ever before.

He claims credit for a variety of Montenegrin advances: independence, from Serbia, which he engineered a decade ago; an invitation to join NATO; EU membership talks; and the latest International Monetary Fund forecasts, which show strong growth this and next year. 

On top of that, he has governed pretty much without interruption for a quarter of a century. Given his stature - and the length of his run - the campaign and the vote on Sunday will end up being far less about policies than about Djukanovic.

"On Sunday you decide not who will run the government, but whether Montenegro will be or will not be," Djukanovic told a rally near Podgorica on Wednesday evening.

However, he also has a semi-permanent cloud of corruption allegations swirling around him. This time, they even appear to have caught up with him.

He was implicated in Italy for being involved in cross-Adriatic cigarette smuggling and accused of having a hand, directly or through family, in shadowy privatization and construction deals. 

The bank run by his brother Aco was bailed out in 2008 with millions in losses under murky circumstances. Critics accuse him of suppressing free media and using police to control opponents.

The recent sentencing of the longtime Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) ideologist and second-in-command, Svetozar Marovic, to three years in prison for corruption further tarnished the image of the party and its undisputed leader.

But, despite the focus on him, it's important not to forget there are other issues strongly polarizing Montenegrin society.

Fierce debates about relations with "sister" Serbia - which have been chilly since Montenegro stood up to it a decade ago - as well as those with "mother" Russia - the subject of Western sanctions which Montenegro backs - are likely to come up. Religion and EU membership are also topics that could boil over.

However, the focus will remain on Djukanovic. The opposition has finally united, if only in its disgust for him and this year it is focused on ending his time in power, which has so far only been interrupted by two two-year breaks he took voluntarily in 2006 and 2010.

The opposition, led by the Democratic Front, also received a strong boost with the defection of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) from a coalition with the DPS after 18 years.

DPS answers these attacks with its “Surefooted” campaign, signaling a warning that a change at the helm would jeopardize all the progress towards NATO and the European Union and deliver Montenegro into the clutches of Russia.

"The stake is huge, we must defend what we achieved on May 21, 2006," Djukanovic said, referring to the referendum on independence and the divorce from Serbia after nine decades.

Pollsters predict a very close race Sunday which could swing either way. 

In the end, whether Djukanovic is to triumph yet another time or take his first defeat may hinge on the turnout among the 530,000 voters and which of the 17 tickets in the race clear the 3-per cent hurdle to claim seats in the legislature.

Polling stations open at 7 am and close at 8 pm (0500-1800 GMT) and first projections are expected within a few hours.

Last update: Fri, 14/10/2016 - 13:46
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