Presidential Elections in Montenegro
The identity question as a sticking point

Milo Djukanovic
© picture alliance / AA | Arif Hudaverdi Yaman

Some 540,000 Montenegrin citizens are being called upon to vote for one of seven presidential candidates on March 19. Incumbent Milo Djukanović wants to do it again, although he has already held the position twice, in addition to six terms as prime minister. In total, the 61-year-old has held various positions at the helm of the smallest Balkan state for more than thirty years.

Even 17 years after the proclamation of independence, the political disputes in the capital Podgorica are dominated by the question of identity: Do the country's inhabitants feel they belong to the Montenegrin or Serbian nation? Which language do the inhabitants speak, Serbian or Montenegrin? Does the Serbian or the Montenegrin Orthodox Church exercise spiritual power in Montenegro? These questions determine the political reality of this small country and have already triggered several state crises.

Three candidates represent three political concepts

The three most promising candidates are current President Milo Djukanović (Democratic Party of Socialists, DPS), Andrija Mandić (New Serbian Democracy, NSD), and former Minister of Economic Development Jakov Milatović (Europe Now! Movement, ES). Although incumbent Djukanović leads all polls, Milatović's support for the opposing candidate could throw a wrench in Djukanović's plans in the event of a runoff.

In particular, the presidential election is a barometer for next year's upcoming parliamentary elections. A victory by the pro-European and reform-oriented forces could finally bring down the "Djukanović system" and help Montenegro to join the EU more quickly. Rarely have three candidates so clearly personified the three competing political orientations in modern Montenegro as in this election: for rapprochement with Serbia, for rapprochement with the European Union, or for continuing as before with an uncertain outcome.

Almost twenty years ago, Milo Djukanović led Montenegro first to independence (2006), then later to NATO (2017). In his election campaign, he set pro-European accents and advertised that the country could become an EU member during his upcoming mandate. As a not uncontroversial "father of the country", Djukanović presents himself in a statesmanlike manner while at the same time giving the impression that the country would plunge into chaos and ruin if he were defeated. Controversial because Montenegro has become increasingly corrupt during Djukanović's three decades of rule, and the authoritarian nature of his leadership has raised eyebrows among EU representatives. The few EU embassies in the country are increasingly distancing themselves from the "permanent president“. On the other hand, his popularity ratings are between 35 and 40 percent, which could turn out to be problematic for him in the event of a runoff election.

Andrija Mandić has so far been the "eternal loser" in Montenegrin politics. Mandić has long been known not only as a supporter of a joint state with Serbia, but also as a hard-line Serb nationalist and opponent of Montenegro's Euro-Atlantic integration. Various court cases, including one for a planned coup d'état, were inconclusive; as a result, Mandić parted with his radically pro-Serbian views in slices and sought a path to the political center. Officially, he accepts Montenegro's NATO membership and seeks EU membership. Of the three leading candidates, his chances of winning are the slimmest - his eventual support for Jakov Milatović could be of decisive importance for a possible runoff election.

In comparison to the first two candidates, Jakov Milatović, although having served as a independent minister of economy from 2020-2022, appears to be a blank slate. Milatović, deputy chairman of the "Europe, Now!" movement, decided to run for president only three weeks before Election Day. The previous candidate of the pro-European civic movement Milojko Spajić had to throw in the towel due to a dual Montenegrin-Serbian citizenship, which is illegal in Montenegro. Milatović (37) is considered a young but experienced economist; his appointment as minister of economy was the highlight of his political career so far.

Representing a young generation that rejects the decades-long division between Montenegrins on the one hand and Serbs on the other, Milatović is trying to reconcile Montenegro's European path with its traditionally close relations with Serbia. As a departure from the identity issues that have long dominated the country, he emphasizes the country's economic development in his program. He consistently sets himself apart from the incumbent President Djukanović and his DPS party with strong anti-corruption messages.

"Business as usual" or "Europe, now!"?

An increasingly likely runoff election is scheduled for April 2. Polls show that Jakov Milatović would have good prospects in a direct duel with incumbent President Djukanović. Andrija Mandić, on the other hand, is considered an outsider because the majority of the population no longer identifies with his pro-Serbian positions. If it goes to a runoff, Montenegrins will face a directional election.

Dušan Dinić is Senior Project Coordinator at the Belgrade office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.