Third Force Emerges in Montenegrin Politics

Group for Change talks about the economic issues that worry voters, as support for mainstream parties wanes.

Third Force Emerges in Montenegrin Politics

Group for Change talks about the economic issues that worry voters, as support for mainstream parties wanes.

A new political force advocating practical solutions to Montenegro's economic problems is gaining support amongst an electorate disillusioned with both government and opposition politicians.

Analysts believe that if the Group for Changes, GZP, becomes a political party it could reshape the stagnant political environment. Although it would be unlikely to topple the current ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, it could play a role as watchdog and also prompt the governing coalition to push ahead with stalled reforms.

The GZP was set up in September 2002 by top economists and academics. It is a non-government organisation which generates policy recommendations. Its stated aims are to speed up the domestic reform process, and to promote Montenegro's accession to the European Union.

The latest polls suggest that the group could become a serious force which would shake up Montenegrin politics if it turns itself into a party. According to a survey carried out by the Centre for Democracy and Human Rights, CEDEM, the GZP is already the second most popular political group in the country, while its executive director Nebojsa Medojevic is regarded as the second most respected political figure, just behind prime minister Milo Djukanovic.

A GZP party could have serious consequences for both the ruling coalition and the opposition parties if disenchanted voters view it as a viable alternative. Polling by the United States' National Democratic Institute, NDI, suggests that around 30 per cent of the electorate would consider voting for the GZP if it took part in the next general election.

Medojevic has sought to quell such fears for the time being. He told IWPR that the GZP has no intention of becoming a political party "for the moment", though he did stress that that is only "a current decision, which can be changed".

For the past decade the Montenegrin political scene has been marked by a sharp divide between the opposition, once allied with former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic and still in favour of union with Serbia, and the ruling coalition whose platform includes calls for reform and independence from Belgrade. The balance of power between the two camps has remained close throughout the past five elections, although the pro-independence bloc always came out on top.

The polls indicated that voters are losing confidence in the current government. Since its landslide victory in October 2002, it has failed to implement badly-needed economic reforms. And its image has also been tarnished by scandals in which senior officials have been accused of involvement in cigarette smuggling and trafficking women.

Despite this, the opposition has failed to capitalise on its position. It is unlikely to win new voters from outside its own constituency, since many people still hold its alliance with Milosevic against it. Opposition parties have also lost out by their inability to come up with a clear platform of policies, and are perceived as sniping at the ruling coalition.

According to Medojevic, the GZP's popularity has arisen out of widespread dissatisfaction with the current political elite. "The people are tired of worrying about scandals and the accusations of vote-rigging which the government and opposition hurl at each other in order to preserve the status quo," he told IWPR. "We are talking about real problems in agriculture, healthcare and the economy, and we are talking about poverty. That is why we are so well received."

The worsening economic situation has pushed basic concerns such as living costs, employment, industry and reform to the top of the agenda for many Montenegrins. As a result they find the mainstream parties' political hobbyhorses increasingly irrelevant.

In a country where the average monthly wage is about 200 euro and official figures put unemployment at around 40 per cent, it is not surprising that people see the economy as a priority.

"I want to do my job and I want to see economic progress in this country," said Milena, a law student from Podgorica. "I simply want to live life with more money in my pocket."

According to the latest polls, around 89 per cent of voters think that the economy is the most important issue, with approximately 79 per cent saying their own situation as bad or unsatisfactory. The question of Montenegrin statehood has fallen to fourth place on the list.

The GZP's focus on economic matters is thus a potential vote-winner. Medojevic told IWPR that although many GZP members publicly support full independence, the issue is not central to the group's agenda.

"This question [independence] is totally unimportant and we don't devote too much attention to it. There are Serbs, Muslims, Montenegrins, pro-federalists and pro-independence figures in our organisation - our common aim is to create a better life for our people."

A secondary factor in the changing balance of power may be simple voter apathy. Polls have indicated that two out of five voters could stay at home on the next general election day.

"The opposition and the government are all the same, and I don't want to give them my vote," said media worker Vlatko, who told IWPR that he has not voted for years. "I will go to the polls once I see some new untarnished political figure or party."

Both the main blocs have grown increasingly jumpy about the GZP's growing popularity, and have attacked it publicly. Parliamentary speaker Ranko Krivokapic criticised the GZP at the beginning of October, saying that the organisation is falsely representing itself as a non-government organisation so that it can use donations to establish itself as a political party. At the same time, the opposition People's Party suggested that the GZP was no more than an extended arm of the government.

Political observers in Montenegro say that, with international backing, the GZP could very quickly transform itself into a strong party. They say the international community is unhappy with the current stalemate - where the opposition is so weak that it cannot challenge the government - and believe that the GZP might enliven the stagnant political scene.

"No political party stands a chance of scoring an overwhelming victory at the elections," said Srdjan Darmanovic, director of CEDEM in Podgorica. "But some internationals might see the GZP as an important factor in monitoring the work of the government and encouraging it to take political action."

Boris Darmanovic is IWPR's project manager in Podgorica.

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