Thursday, March 26, 2009
Montenegro's general elections predict problems ahead
Podgorica, March 26, 2009
Montenegro heads to the polls on Sunday with veteran Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic seeking a fresh mandate to guide his young nation through an economic crisis and closer to the EU and NATO.
The governing coalition led by Djukanovic's Democratic Party of Socialists, effectively in power since 1991, called the early legislative polls in order to speed up reforms required for full integration into the two blocs.
But the splintered opposition has accused Djukanovic's government of trying to win a new term before the global economic crisis fully impacts on Montenegro's fragile economy in transition.
"I am not saying that we are wizards who will totally keep Montenegro away from the crisis, but I can say the government is taking measures to spare the country from the worst consequences," Djukanovic said during campaigning.
The premier, who is vying for a sixth term as PM at the age of 47, promised his government would "preserve the stability of the economy" if awarded another mandate.
According to the latest opinion poll, Djukanovic's ruling coalition dubbed "European Montenegro" is likely to sweep to victory giving it an outright majority with 51 per cent of voter support.
The opposition, an assortment of parties representing minority Serbs and people fed up with Djukanovic's domination, have been given virtually no chance of upsetting his 18-year hold on power.
The main opposition Socialist People's Party is expected to gain 16.8 per cent of the vote, ahead of the New Serbian Democracy party with 12 per cent and neo-liberal Movement for Change with six per cent.
Twelve other parties and coalitions will run, but are unlikely to win any of the 81 parliamentary seats.
"The citizens continue to vote for the ruling coalition as there is no clear and precise alternative," analyst Drasko Djuranovic told AFP.
"The domination of the ruling coalition has not been an expression of its strength, but proof of the weakness of the divided and obstructive opposition," he said.
Another analyst, Nedjeljko Rudovich, agreed the opposition "has been failing to force itself as a serious alternative" to the Djukanovic-led coalition.
But Rudovich, political editor of the influential daily Vijesti, warned the main issues would come up after the elections, as the "authorities will face one of the most serious challenges in the past few years."
"The issue is not what will happen on March 29, but after. The question is how Montenegro will manage to cope with a deteriorating economic situation that threatens to jeopardise living standards," he said.
Economic growth in Montenegro is predicted to slow to around 2.0 per cent in the next two years compared with double-digit rates since independence in 2006, the International Monetary Fund said in December.
Gross domestic product growth reached 10.7 per cent in 2007, and was expected to come in at 8.0 per cent in 2008, says the central bank.
Montenegro split from a loose union with Serbia in June 2006 after a historic independence referendum, and applied to join the European Union in December.
It signed a so-called Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the 27-nation bloc in October 2007, the first stage in a country's membership quest.
Montenegro hopes to join the NATO military alliance, which in mid-2008 invited the former Yugoslav republic to begin "intensified dialogue" on its membership and related reforms.
Sunday's vote will be monitored by more than 1,200 observers, including some 200 representing the international community.
Some 500,000 voters are eligible to cast ballots from 8:00 am (0600 GMT) until 9:00 pm (1900 GMT). The first estimates will be given shortly after polling closes, while official early results are expected by midnight.
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Polls suggest that Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic's Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), which has held power since the advent of democracy in 1991, will win another four-year mandate. The opposition's inability to form a coalition will probably simplify the DPS's task.
Together with its smaller coalition partner, Ranko Krivokapic's Social Democratic Party (SDP) and with support from the national minorities' parties -- the Bosniak Party and the Croatian Civic Initiative -- the DPS is confident of a sweeping victory. It promises voters a fast track European integration, major investments in infrastructure and a higher living standard.
According to Centre for Democracy and Human Rights findings published last week, Djukanovic's coalition has 51.5% of the vote. Of the 15 opposition parties, the closest to the DPS is Srdjan Milic's Socialist People's Party (SNP), trailing far behind at 17%.
The DPS's trump card is its charismatic standard-bearer, Djukanovic.
"The DPS is going to ... send a clear message to our opponents," he said at a campaign rally, "that we are ... willing to take responsibility for the security and prosperity of Montenegro and for a policy that takes us safely to our European destination".
The DPS and its leader have only grown in strength since the passage of the referendum on independence in May 2006. The ruling party contends that only it can save Montenegro from the global economic crisis.
According to media reports last month, the government was contemplating whether to eliminate 30,000 public sector jobs. Reports on Saturday (March 21st) said the KAP aluminum smelter, the country's largest exporter, faced closure as aluminum prices crashed.
The DPS promises to fight the economic crisis with ambitious infrastructure projects such as construction of a north-south highway and by investing generously in the tourism and energy sectors.
The opposition, though, warns against the danger of entrenching the DPS as a ruling party and opening Montenegro to the risk of corruption and organised crime. Last October, Italian prosecutors charged seven of Djukanovic's associates and seven Italians with cigarette smuggling.
Such are the warnings of Andrija Mandic's New Serbian Democracy (polling at about 12%) and Nebojsa Medojevic's Movement for Changes (polling at 6.3%). Mandic and Medojevic also assure the public that they have their own remedies for Montenegro's ailing, import-dependent economy, while Milic's SNP insists on welfare benefits for the country's most vulnerable residents.
All other opposition parties are at the lower end in the poll ratings, unable to obtain the necessary number of votes to win seats in parliament, or are far too small to entertain such a hope. Parties need to gain 10,000 to 13,000 votes to win any seats in parliament in a country of 500,000 registered voters.
How does Milo deal with this?
About 2,000 workers in Montenegro protested Wednesday over the possible closure of a factory owned by embattled Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska, the Associated Press reported.
The workers at aluminum maker KAP, the biggest Montenegrin exporter, defied a police ban and gathered in front of government headquarters to put pressure on officials to ensure that the factory remains open.
Montenegro's economy, already in crisis because of the global financial meltdown, would destabilize further if the factory closes.
Deripaska, once Russia's richest man, is struggling for his financial survival as his aluminum maker UC Rusal heads into talks with creditors over billions of dollars in debt.
The company, one of the largest aluminum producers in the world, has until early May to reach a deal with foreign lenders to restructure $7.4 billion in loans. It owes nearly $7 billion to domestic banks.
Deripaska bought KAP in 2006, but later sued the Montenegrin state for 330 million Euros, claiming the government, as a former KAP owner, did not present the true economic situation of the factory when the sale was made.
KAP's production of around 120,000 tonnes of aluminum a year had been halved because of low aluminum prices amid the global financial crisis.
The government responded with a countersuit, claiming the Russian company failed to fulfill its obligations under the sale contract, especially in the area of investment and environmental protection.
KAP is the tiny Adriatic country's biggest exporter, accounting for 40 percent of the Balkan state's industrial production. Together with a bauxite mine, it has 4,000 employees.
The country, meanwhile, is preparing to hold early elections Sunday. Many analysts have suggested that Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic called the vote because he believes the global financial crisis could dent his popularity over the long term.
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