The ruling parties in the three competitive authoritarian regimes under study have positioned themselves as large-tent, centrist parties by absorbing crucial policy issues and strategically co-opting key actors into government. Authoritarian rulers shifted, deepened, or merged relevant programmatic dimensions, such as regime legacies, foreign policy, and national cleavages. In consequence, opposition parties repeatedly had to confront the changing dynamics of inter-party competition with different implications for the opposition’s cohesion.
Legacies of predecessor regimes have a structuring effect on the formation of party systems. All three countries share a legacy of state socialism, while Montenegro and Serbia additionally experienced a period of autocratic rule in the 1990s.
Montenegro’s ruling party, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), is the successor of Montenegro’s League of Communists. The DPS seamlessly retained power in the 1990s, as Montenegro formed a joint state with Serbia. In 1997, the party split from Milošević and transformed, led by Milo Đukanović, into a populist centre-left party endorsing a distinct Montenegrin identity and adopting a pro-Western policy. Its change of course aided the DPS to invite key actors from the aspiring pro-independence and anti-Milošević opposition into government (Morrison 2009, 34). The DPS’ co-optation divided Montenegro’s civic opposition into regime-insiders and -outsiders. For example, Montenegro’s leading pro-independence party at the time, the Liberal Party of Montenegro (LSCG), mainly maintained its anti-regime position. But when the DPS embarked on the cause of Montenegrin independence, the LSCG lost considerable support. The DPS’ turnaround also gave rise to a substantial opposition faction that promoted a continued state federation with Serbia. Since Montenegro’s independence in 2006, however, parties from the unionist camp have focused on identity issues. But their emphasis on Serb identity and close ties with Serbia has alienated civic opposition parties and their constituencies (Morrsion 2018, ch. 9).
Serbia’s ruling party, the SNS, broke away from the extreme right-wing Serb Radical Party (SRS) in 2008. During the 1990s, the SRS was an occasional junior partner of Milošević’s Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), the successor to the League of Communists. By 2003, the SPS re-gained relevance as the kingmaker in the competition between Serbia’s largest reformist actorsFootnote 2 who had been united by little except their common opposition to the Milošević regime (Bochsler 2010). One consequence of the SPS’ rehabilitation was that regime legacies forfeited their structuring property for inter-party competition. In 2008, the SNS emerged as an important party after a split within the SRS. The nominally pragmatic and reformist SNS managed to fill a void on the centre-right, left by the infighting among Serbia’s reformist parties (Konitzer 2011). Chaired by Aleksandar Vučić, the SNS rose to power in 2012, whereupon Serbia’s previously dominant parties fragmented along several dimensions. Crucial in this development was the disintegration of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and the split of the Democratic Party (DS) in multiple factions with the SNS co-opting a significant share of the party nomenclature (Bieber 2020, pp.44).
North Macedonia had no ruling authoritarian party in the 1990s. Between 1991 and 2006, North Macedonia’s successor to the League of Communists, the centre-left Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), and its counterpart, the anti-communist, nationalist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation—Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) regularly alternated in government. During the eleven-year rule of the VMRO-DPMNE (2006–2017), the ruling party under the leadership of Nikola Gruevski became increasingly authoritarian, marginalising the opposition. In addition, all governments could rely on the support of the main Albanian minority party, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI/BDI), that was part of governing coalitions between 2002 and 2020 (except 2006–2008). The SDSM persisted as the main opposition party and while losing votes, never faced serious fragmentation or challenges as has been the case in Serbia or Montenegro. The SDSM could rely on its large infrastructure and while it faced a serious decline in electoral support, it could dominate the opposition, mostly as the ruling party did not try to overcome the ideological divide and reach out to the political left (Šedo 2013).
Foreign policy objectives constitute the second dimension of party competition. Since 2000, Western Balkans’ societies display a growing consensus on the positive implications of European integration. Anti-European parties were either politically marginalised or faced increasing pressure to reform, even if only superficially. This is reflected in the transformation of Montenegro’s DPS in 1997 and North Macedonia’s VMRO-DPMNE in 2003 (Šedo 2013). The SNS’ founding in 2008 was equally an attempt of the SRS’ pragmatic wing to escape domestic and international isolation caused by its anti-European stance. Similarly, anti-European positions have broadly vanished from the programmes of Western Balkans’ opposition parties; the SRS and Dveri in Serbia or the Serb nationalist Democratic Front (DF) in Montenegro, two countries in which pro-Russian and anti-NATO sentiments are high, mark the most prominent exceptions. In contrast to Montenegro, Serbia’s opposition faces more difficulties to mobilise foreign policy issues against the regime. This is due to the fact that Serbia’s dominant party managed to reconcile seemingly disparate foreign policy directions. Apart from a pro-European course, the SNS promotes close ties with China and maintains a strategic pro-Russian position, also expressed by its opposition towards NATO membership.
Finally, national cleavages continue to structure party interaction. The dominant parties in all three countries moderated their nationalist stances of the 1990s and attracted minority parties’ support. Yet, these alliances are more grounded in the principle of ‘divide and rule’ rather than genuine concern for minority representation (see, for example, Bieber 2020, 55; Mús and Korzeniewska-Wiszniewska 2013). All three dominant parties continue to fuel nationalist sentiments. Examples include the VMRO-DPMNE’s promotion of a Macedonian nation-building project (Ceka 2018), the ongoing subversion of a dialogue with Kosovo by Serbia’s government-controlled media, or the creation of a distinct national identity by Montenegro’s DPS. Thus, in trying to confront the ruling parties’ dominant position, national issues present a potential for the opposition to divide. The most striking example is Montenegro, where the state-sponsored nation-building highlighted the differences between Serbs and Montenegrins, reinforcing political and social polarisation (Morrison 2018). However, the government’s controversial Law on Religion in 2020, that the Serb Orthodox Church in Montenegro feared to lead to the expropriation of some of its churches, seemed to have overstepped a mark (RFE 2019). The law arose considerable outrage, tipping the scales towards the DPS’ disadvantage in the 2020 general elections.
The comparison illlustrates that differently structured party systems promote different degrees of opposition cohesion and fragmentation. Opposition fragmentation is particularly pronounced in Serbia and Montenegro. Serbia’s party system is characterised by various intersecting cleavages providing little ground for a broad anti-regime alliance. This dynamic is reinforced by the fact that the SNS has absorbed a number of pivotal policy positions and, thus, has become a difficult target for a divided opposition. In Montenegro, the DPS reinforced the cleavage over Montenegro’s state and nationhood and, in consequence, divided the opposition into civic and Serb nationalist parties. Central to this development in both countries was the fact that the dominant parties continuously co-opted parties and politicians from the opposition. In North Macedonia, the SDSM remained the main opposition party during the VMRO-DPMNE regime, competing en bloc with an established coalition of minor partners. The opposition’s cohesiveness was not threatened by cross-cutting dimensions. But instead, the anti-Communist/ex-communist divide provided the SDSM with a clear distinction from the conservative/nationalist VMRO-DPMNE.