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Montenegro Meltdown

In a looming constitutional crisis, bitterly opposed political parties face an upcoming election but can't agree on which set of laws will govern the vote.
By Milka Tadic-Mijovic

Montenegro's parliamentary and presidential elections are in doubt following further conflict between the country's rival political blocs, and the crisis has engulfed the constitutional court.


The Democratic Party of Socialists, DPS, led by President Milo Djukanovic, is insisting that the extraordinary parliamentary elections scheduled for October 6 be held under existing electoral laws, while the opposition wants the upcoming elections to be conducted under new rules introduced a few weeks ago.


In mid-July, the opposition grouping consisting of the Liberal Alliance and the Together for Yugoslavia coalition used its single vote majority in the Montenegrin parliament to push through a controversial set of media and election laws, despite the objections of representatives from the ruling DPS, the Social Democratic Party, SDP, and two Albanian parties.


The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, has tried - unsuccessfully so far - to mediate a rapprochement of the seemingly irreconcilable sides, and the European Union has warned both parties that Montenegro may suffer serious consequences as a result of their actions.


Under the terms of the constitution, Djukanovic was forced to sign the new media and electoral legislation after the Montenegrin parliament passed them for a second time.


However, the president insisted the elections would be held under the old legislation, saying, "the (new) laws were adopted after the elections had already been called, and according to the constitution the law cannot be altered retroactively".


The president later accused the parliamentary majority of trying to tailor laws to fit their own requirements in order to score a "fraudulent" victory in October.


This statement drew sharp criticism from the opposition. The Liberal leader Miodrag Zivkovic was the first to react, saying, "whether Djukanovic likes it or not, the October 6 elections will be held according to the new legislation".


Srdjan Darmanovic, director of the Centre for Democracy and Human Rights, assesses that from the moment elections are called "neither the government nor parliament can carry out systemic changes".


He predicts conflict and chaos if the pro-Yugoslav coalition and the Liberals continue to insist on getting their own way.


The elections themselves are now under threat, with pro-Yugoslav People's Party president Dragan Soc announcing that the situation may lead to the cancellation of not only the parliamentary ballot, but also the presidential elections which need to held by November at the latest.


That is a very real possibility, as the electoral legislation is far from being the only source of conflict. Montenegro remains without a key element in its electoral system: a constitutional court.


The constitutional court is the only body empowered to rule on candidate's appeals to the republican election commission. It has been in limbo since the beginning of August, after the judges' mandate expired and the parliamentary majority refused to vote for new justices nominated by the president. Soc claims that the elections will lack legitimacy without a functioning constitutional court.


If new judges were not appointed to the court, Soc said, Liberal Alliance member and Montenegrin parliamentary speaker Vesna Perovic would take over the functions of the republican president when Djukanovic's mandate expires on January 15, 2003.


Soc has now called on Djukanovic and his party to compromise over both the electoral legislation and the appointment of a new judiciary, and has asked the president to nominate judges acceptable to the parliamentary majority.


However, the president's supporters have called Soc's sincerity into question. SDP vice-president Miodrag Ilickovic told IWPR, "The Together for Yugoslavia coalition and the Liberal Alliance declaratively advocate compromise but work to prevent this from happening."


"Their plan is to create legal chaos, destroying the constitutional court and the electoral system in order to cancel parliamentary and presidential elections, because they can't win either of those. They want to rule without a mandate as they now have the majority."


The conflict began when pro-independence Djukanovic, under EU pressure, signed the so-called Belgrade agreement, guaranteeing the survival of the Serbia-Montenegro state, in March of this year. This action split his ruling coalition, whose programme was based on the nation gaining its sovereignty.


The parliamentary balance of power then turned in the opposition's favour. The Liberal Alliance, Djukanovic's former partner, withdrew its support for the government and entered into an informal alliance with the pro-Yugoslav opposition.


These unlikely bedfellows now enjoy a single-vote parliamentary majority, which they used to pass a set of election and media laws on the pretext that the existing legislation favoured the DPS and led to pro-government bias, particularly during election time.


The DPS, SDP and Albanian parties branded the new set of laws - adopted without the consultation of all parliamentary parties or the OSCE - as undemocratic.


At a long meeting with Montenegrin parliamentary members this week, experts from the OSCE's Office for Democracy and Human Rights warned that the elections must be held according to the present law with some technical amendments, and stressed the new media legislation was unacceptable as it does not preserve freedom of information and expression.


The OSCE has asked all parliamentary parties to compromise and has offered concrete recommendations, such as retaining and improving the existing election law through some amendments.


After assessing that the state media was biased in favour of the ruling party in two earlier elections, the OSCE recommended that those editors be replaced with professionals acceptable to all political parties.


The seriousness of the situation is not lost on the EU, which has appealed to all parties to accept the OSCE recommendations and hold the extraordinary parliamentary elections under the current laws. "If there is no agreement Montenegro will sustain particular damage," warned the EU letter.


Milka Tadic-Mijovic is editor of Monitor weekly in Podgorica