With power within reach, this is what Montenegro’s new coalition government needs to do first ǀ View

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When a man has ruled for decades, his loss of power is always unexpected – until it happens. In Montenegro on August 30, President Milo Djukanovic – in power with his party for nearly 30 years – lost the parliamentary election. It is the first time in history that his Democratic Socialists have been defeated.

After such a lengthy rule, a transitionary process must take place. All manner of possibility now lays before the incoming new coalition government; though they must also be conscious of the risks ahead.

Part of the reason Djukanovic’s party have been able to cling to power for so long was his ability to play the West against its fear of Russian influence. Pitching himself as a Western reformer, he branded the opposition – falsely – in election after election as eastern-facing in order to enlist western nations’ support, whilst turning a blind eye to widespread and well-reported corruption and electoral fraud.

The new, incoming coalition government has decisively moved to dispel this myth. An agreement unveiled between its three leaders on Wednesday emphatically pledges to “strengthen and enhance cooperation with NATO.” Combined with previous pronouncements on accelerating EU membership talks, they have lanced Djukanovic’s claims.

During Montenegro’s accession talks in 2017, America identified members of Montenegrin intelligence as Russian operatives. They demanded their removal. Djukanovic obliged, yet not as expected: he simply transferred them from state security to senior positions in the state police.

Getting serious about removing these influences in state institutions can be the first signal of intent to western allies. It will bring the benefits of their cooperation in reforming those institutions. But to fully dislodge the president’s hand from Montenegro’s levers of power, the coalition will need the largest possible working majority they can muster.

If the election was one thing, it was an emphatic rejection of a discredited and corrupt regime. Those already in the coalition are, wisely, already opening the door to smaller minority parties. Currently, three alliances formally constitute the grouping. This gives them 41 seats in a house of 81. More can and should be added to drive meaningful change efficiently through parliament.

In addition, the coalition must roll back the religious law that was ultimately Djukanovic’s downfall. Forced through parliament last December, the controversial statute set off the nation’s largest-ever public protests. Yet, after diminishing other sectors of civil society – particularly the media and NGOs – the Orthodox Church was one remaining pillar the opposition could still unite around.

So, the people did. The law provided for the reinvention of church property as state property. Yet, a united front emerged, joining the church’s followers, those who cared about freedom of religion, property rights and Montenegro’s constitution in protest against the law and the president.

The repeal of the statute will return the freedom for all to follow their own religion in peace. Then the healing between religious cleavages and ethnicities – divided through electoral strategy by Djukanovic for decades – can begin.

Thirdly, state capture and corruption must be tackled. A Commission of Inquiry should be initiated to uncover the extent of theft under Djukanovic’s administration. The country needs to close a chapter of plunder, much like the people of Malaysia are so doing through discovering the depths of the 1MDB scandal. Investigating decades of state theft, the new administration will address the root cause for a dearth of foreign direct investment: namely, the severe lack of trust by international financiers in the rule of law.

And that need for new investment is urgent: for swift action is required on jobs, the economy, and public debt.

Immediately, the new government must ensure they put in place proper protections and support measures for citizens and small businesses suffering from coronavirus measures and poor government – something Djukanovic has conspicuously failed to do, despite holding all the levers of power up until the election.

The tourism industry – which supports tens of thousands of jobs – has been hit not only by coronavirus measures but by the outgoing government’s nationalist and arbitrary goal of barring Serbian citizens from entering the country. This must be reversed, and our regional friends welcomed once more, both for the sake of good neighbourliness and the economy.

And in the medium and longer-term, the overbearing national debt must be reduced. Projects such as the Chinese-debt funded “road to nowhere” should be reviewed and – if necessary – ended, and projects more favourable to the public and the public purse should be brought into play instead.

Despite the change in parliamentary arithmetic, Djukanovic will, however, still hold the presidency. Now the new government will have a critical role to play in holding him to account. It must ensure the president does not use his position to manufacture immunity from questions over corruption which he now must answer.

An era has drawn to a close in Montenegrin political history. A monopoly of power has been punctured for good. But the balance of power between parliament, presidency and state institutions still leaves much room for manoeuvre. Djukanovic endured as long as he did because he was a canny operator. The new coalition must recognise that the real challenge is just beginning.

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