Can Europe Make It?

Elections in North Macedonia: waiting for a kingmaker

How do we explain the performances of the political parties? What should one expect?

Vassilis Petsinis
20 July 2020
Zoran Zaev, leader of SDSM, celebrates victory in early parliamentary elections in Skopje, July 16, 2020.
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Unreguser/PA. All rights reserved.

Conforming to the dominant trend throughout the former Yugoslavia, the government of North Macedonia declared a countrywide lockdown (March 18, 2020). However, on July 15, North Macedonia became the third post-Yugoslav state, after Serbia and Croatia, to hold elections for its national assembly (Sobranie). The electoral procedure took place against a polarized and rather fragmented background and amid the repercussions of the Covid-19 crisis on the country’s political and socioeconomic realities.

Various pre-electoral polls hinted at a tight race but converged on the prediction that the coalition built around the ruling (centre-left) Social Democratic Union/SDSM was set to win a parliamentary majority. Around 50.84% of the registered electorate turned out to cast their vote – a percentage not considerably higher than turnout rates in the parliamentary elections recently held in Croatia (46.62%) and Serbia (50.32%). By contrast to the Croatian precedent, on this occasion, the pre-electoral polls were proven rather accurate. SDSM won the parliamentary majority, garnering 36.12% of the vote and electing 46 deputies to the Sobranie – followed closely by (conservative right-wing) VMRO-DPMNE/Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (34.85%of the vote and 44 MPs).

What hot-button issues dominated the pre-electoral campaigns ? And what happens next?

Constitutional provisions and electoral legislation

In contrast to Serbia’s presidential system and the relatively enhanced status of the president vis-à-vis the national parliament in Croatia, the North Macedonian Constitution vests almost the entirety of legislative and executive functions in the Sobranie (Articles 88-97). The President, elected via universal and direct ballot, is assigned the High Command of the Armed Forces. Otherwise, the competencies of the Presidential Office possess a rather symbolic significance (e.g. the formal appointment of the Government and the members of the Constitutional Court; the bestowal of honours on nominated individuals; and the representation of the state abroad), (Articles 79-87). Both President Stevo Pendarovski (elected in May) and acting PM Oliver Spasovski, who took over after Zoran Zaev stepped down in January, hail from the ranks of SDSM.

The electoral procedure was conducted in 6 districts, applying the proportional d’Hondt formula, with 20 seats per constituency. No fixed threshold was set for a party-list to enter the parliament. As in Croatia, 3 ‘special’ seats are reserved for voters from the diaspora, and at least 30% of the candidates in each party-list must be of a different gender.

Hot-button issues

The urgent priority to combat the spread of the coronavirus dominated the platforms of North Macedonia’s political parties – albeit in a different fashion from the Serbia and Croatia precedents. All parties, each from their own angle, sought to assess the potential impact of the Covid-19 crisis on numerous political and socioeconomic deficiencies (e.g. problems of non-transparency in public administration, insufficient productivity growth and low living standards) that have persisted in the country since its independence (1991).

All parties… sought to assess the potential impact of the Covid-19 crisis on numerous political and socioeconomic deficiencies… that have persisted in the country since its independence (1991).

Former PM Zoran Zaev of SDSM contended that the state authorities handled the Covid-19 crisis in a transparent and coordinated manner – as also, allegedly, verified in the reports of the World Health Organization/WHO. At the other end of the spectrum, the leader of VMRO-DPMNE and main contender, Hristijan Mickocki, accused the government of downplaying the actual toll of the pandemic and systematically ignoring his party’s warnings and recommendations since last February.

In addition to the Covid-19 crisis, North Macedonia’s recent membership of NATO (March 27, 2020), as well as the country’s prospects inside the accession process to the EU, formed two areas of major concern during the pre-electoral campaign. SDSM sought to capitalize on the Prespa Agreement (June 12, 2018), which opened up the trajectory to North Macedonia’s entry to NATO, and the normalization of relations with Greece (also, to a secondary extent, Bulgaria). The ruling party’s affiliates expressed their optimism in regard to North Macedonia’s accession process to the EU and pledged to lift the reservations of powerful west European states (namely, France). Meanwhile, Mickocki and other prominent members of VMRO-DPMNE (e.g. the erstwhile Foreign Minister, Antonio Milošoski) kept on accusing SDSM of ceding national sovereignty in their endeavour to sign the Prespa Agreement, and resorting to authoritarianism in their attempt to suppress dissident voices and implement the Agreement’s terms. The main opposition party reiterated its standpoint that North Macedonia must enter NATO and the EU ‘proud and dignified; not humiliated, disfigured and disgraced’.

Following the closure of the southern border (March 2016), migration issues did not constitute a major component of the pre-electoral debate. VMRO-DPMNE insisted on a ‘hard borders’ approach to the refugee crisis whereas, although highlighting the infrastructural deficiencies, SDSM juxtaposed a more humanitarian outlook.

Following the closure of the southern border (March 2016), migration issues did not constitute a major component of the pre-electoral debate.

As always, the management of interethnic relations and minority issues retained primary significance – especially as far as the largest minority group (ethnic Albanians) is concerned. The ethnic Albanian political scene in North Macedonia is characterized by a high degree of fragmentation into a multitude of parties that position themselves on different sides of the left-right axis and represent a variety of interest-groups.

Nevertheless, the ethnic Albanian political elites appeared to converge on the need to: (a) safeguard the collective rights granted to their community by the Ohrid Agreement (2001); (b) assess the challenges posed by the Covid-19 crisis, as well as the opportunities emerging within the frame of NATO-membership and EU-accession, in regard to the communication between the ethnic Albanian minority and adjacent Kosovo and Albania.

Parties and performances

The electoral procedure was overall completed promptly with ten cases of possible irregularities reported to the Electoral Commission. SDSM and the smaller coalition under its banner (‘BESA’), consisting of ethnic Albanian parties, secured the first spot with a percentage of 36.12% and 46 seats (three fewer in comparison to the 49 deputies that the party had appointed in the elections of 2016). The implementation of the Prespa Agreement and, most recently, the management of the coronavirus emergency are two policymaking areas that polarize society and this includes the target-groups favourably inclined towards SDSM. Moreover, allegations over the replacement of VMRO-DPMNE’s erstwhile network of political cientelism by a new one built around SDSM are likely to have cost the party a certain percentage of votes.

Nevertheless, SDSM proved rather efficient in maintaining cohesion within those segments of the electorate that remain highly apprehensive vis-à-vis the legacies from the latest tenure of VMRO-DPMNE and former PM Nikola Gruevski in power – namely, the charges over the promotion of nepotism, widespread corruption, illegitimate surveillance of political opponents and, top of the list, authoritarianism. These are, usually, the more socially liberal and pro-EU voters, resident in the larger urban centres (e.g. the capital city of Skopje, Bitola and Kumanovo) as well as smaller constituencies in the south and the west of the country (e.g. Prilep). SDSM’s pre-electoral campaign along the lines of commitment to the EU accession-process also appears to correlate with high support for membership of the EU in a series of public surveys conducted in early 2020.

To this one should add: (a) the party’s successful networking with a string of interest groups within the ethnic Albanian community; (b) the external endorsement of SDSM by the European Social Democrats as well as prominent figures from the broader left (e.g. Zoran Zaev’s key-ally in Greece and co-signatory of the Prespa Agreement, former PM Alexis Tsipras). The aggregate of these combined factors enabled SDSM to recover any potential losses from allegations over the mishandling of the pandemic.

Runners up

VMRO-DPMNE and the Obnova/’Renewal’ alliance under its auspices occupied the second spot with a percentage of 34.85% and elected 44 deputies to the Sobranie (seven fewer in comparison to the 51 MPs that the party had appointed in 2016). The party succeeded in mobilizing a wide array of public grievances over the terms of the Prespa Agreement (the name-change into ‘North Macedonia’ and the amendments to certain national symbols, in particular), moulding them into electoral support. VMRO-DPMNE proved rather efficient in maintaining its appeal among the more conservative layers of the electorate resident in the rural constituencies, mainly, in the central and eastern parts of the country (e.g. Kavadarci, Veles, Štip and Kriva Palanka). The endorsement of the party by prominent proponents of the illiberal democracy model (namely, Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán) potentially enhanced the electoral groupness of VMRO-DPMNE’s main bases of support but, at the same time, further alienated those segments that already harboured reservations vis-à-vis the party.

To these should be added the persisting inability of VMRO-DPMNE to successfully network within the circles of the ethnic Albanian community – largely as result of the high reliance on nationalism, the institutionalization of the Neo-Macedonism (or ‘antiquization’) concept and the establishment of closer links with Russia during Nikola Gruevski’s term in office.

Following the successful precedents of Možemo/’We Can!’ in Croatia and Levica/’The Left’ in Slovenia, the leftist party of Levica/’The Left’ entered the Sobranie for the first time (4.17% of the vote and 2 seats). Under the leadership of Law Professor, Dimitar Apasiev, in its programme the party: (a) calls for halting relentless and non-transparent privatization; (b) upholds the values of Socialism and urges for upgrading the social welfare system; (c) subscribes to anti-imperialism and opposes North Macedonia’s membership of NATO. The explanations for the successful performance of Levica should be sought in the party’s capitalization on: (a) the non-nationalist strain of opposition to the clauses of the Prespa Agreement; (b) grievances over social welfare and suspicions over the renewed promotion of nepotism and political clientelism under SDSM – especially among left-leaning urban voters.

As far as the ethnic Albanian parties are concerned, the (centre-right) Democratic Union of Integration/DUI (led by veteran politician Ali Ahmeti) won 11.3% of the vote and appointed 15 deputies to the Sobranie. Prior to the elections, Ali Ahmeti had intensely criticized the decision by BESA and its leader, Bilal Kasami, to join forces with SDSM along the lines that this move would allegedly ‘undercut ethnic Albanian votes and weaken the promotion of ethnic Albanian interests at the national assembly’. Nevertheless, this did not hinder DUI from emerging as the most popular party in Tetovo and elsewhere in the northwest of the country – followed closely by the (centre-right) Alliance for Albanians-Alternative/AA-A party (8.52% of the vote and 12 MPs) led by Ziadin Sela. Meanwhile, the oldest and erstwhile dominant Democratic Party of Albanians/DPA garnered a mere 1.51% and elected only one deputy.

What next? Let the bargaining begin

The results of the elections attest to the validity of assessments made long before the outbreak of the Covid-19 crisis. These hinted at the deep polarization of the society over crucial policymaking questions and, to a complementary degree, the urban-rural, as well as inter-regional, divide. As in Croatia and Serbia, the low turnout hints not solely at practical hindrances, caused by the coronavirus emergency, but also to an ‘electoral fatigue’ triggered by the growing mistrust among a considerable segment of the electorate vis-à-vis the major parties.

Nevertheless, as in the first half of 2017, both SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE are currently in search of a ‘kingmaker’ that would enable each party to form a governing coalition. Starting with Levica, this party’s systematic activism against the Prespa Agreement, as well as its programmatic commitment to internationalism and social equality, might render participation in a ruling coalition with either SDSM or VMRO-DPMNE highly precarious for its survival, as a political alternative, in the longer run.

As previously highlighted, SDSM re-affirmed its capacity in networking with the ethnic Albanian community whereas the appeal of VMRO-DPMNE to interest groups within the same minority group has considerably declined. Nevertheless, as demonstrated in the continuous oscillation of DUI between SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE and its final decision to enter a governing coalition with the former party (2017), short-term interests on the political micro-level may occasionally supersede ideological or other cleavages as part of the bargaining process.

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