Macedonia’s local elections first test for Zaev

Mon 25 Sep 2017

Macedonia’s local elections first test for Zaev

After several months of political crisis, a new government was formed comprising the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), the ethnic Albanian party Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), and the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) in May 2017. With this left coalition, Macedonia takes new steps towards more stability and democracy. The local elections on 15 October are a test for the progressive ruling parties whether they have sufficient support from their constituencies to continue their policies. Macedonia’s citizens will cast their votes for both mayors and council members in 80 municipalities.

Combining forces
In attempt to boost their support, the main government parties have announced that they will combine forces by supporting each other’s candidates for the local polls. They also hope to retrieve many of the municipalities they lost to the then ruling conservative right-wing party VMRO-DPMNE during the local elections in 2013. The alliance is a chance for the DUI to get back the ethnic Albanian municipalities’ hold after the party lost half of its support in the general elections of 2016. Many Albanians voted for DUI’s opponents in the Albanian bloc. For Prime Minister Zoran Zaev of the SDSM-led coalition, local elections are a test for the support of his government.

‘’The names of the specific municipalities where our partner, the DUI, will support our [mayoral] candidates and where we will support the DUI's candidates will be known soon,’’ SDSM said in a statement. Bujar Osmani, DUI’s spokesman, said about the announcement: ‘’We have an alliance at the central level and we are considering strengthening that alliance at the local level.’’ In practice, it means that in ethnically-mixed municipalities in which one party has the greatest chance to win due to the largest ethnically support, the two other coalition parties will not nominate their own candidates but support the other nominee instead.

Turbulent years
Political conflict and uncertainty have troubled Macedonia for a long time. The conservative VMRO-DPMNE party of Nikola Gruevski had ruled the country between 2006 and 2016. The government had established an authoritarian regime and invested hundreds of millions in its national identity-building project. Greek-style fountains and buildings appeared in Macedonia’s capital Skopje. Nationalism was encouraged, increasing ethnic conflicts in politics. The VMRO-DPMNE-led coalition became involved in a wire-tap scandal in 2014. Former Prime Minister Gruevski was accused of orchestrating the illegal surveillance of over 20.000 people. According to him, the tapes were ‘’created by unnamed foreign intelligence services’’ and given to the opposition to disparaged the government.

Parliamentary elections took place in December 2016. Both the VMRO-DPMNE and the SDSM claimed victory due to the close finish. Albeit it turned out VMRO-DPMNE had slightly won more votes (39.39%) than the SDSM (37.87%), the party did not manage to form a government in time due the resistance of other parties to take part in a coalition. However, the VMRO-DPMNE refused to cede power to the second largest party SDSM and said that they wanted to call new elections. Other parties did not agree to the proposal and accused VMRO-DPMNE of obstructing the government formation. After DUI, which was previously in coalition with VMRO-DPMNE, switched sides a new government could be formed. The VMRO-DPMNE went into opposition after 10-years of ruling.

The peace seems to be restored gradually. In a survey published by NGO International Republican Institute (IRI) on 18 September, 44 per cent of the 1.105 respondents saw the political situation as ‘’peaceful and stable’’ in August while in March only 5 per cent of the respondents said the same.

Future challenges
The SDSM-led coalition has the challenging task to regain the trust of its citizens and to overcome ethnic conflicts, deepened during the ruling of VMRO-DPMNE, uniting Macedonians with Albanian minorities. Furthermore, the current government should stimulate the downward economy. It should also stimulate the stagnated EU integration process and NATO membership due to the lingering name dispute with Greece. Moreover, the government needs to deal with issues that jeopardize joining the EU, like corruption, fraud, control over the judiciary, and media freedom.

The local elections will be exciting. Some pre-elections opinion polls have suggested a slight advantage for the main ruling party SDSM over VMRO-DPMNE. In the latest survey by IRI it emerged that 19 per cent of the respondents said they would vote for the SDSM, while 18 per cent said they would vote for VMRO-DPMNE. The right-wing party put more pressure on upcoming elections by demanding the right to hold municipal referendums against the government’s plan to settle Middle East refugees in the country on the same day. 20 pro-VMRO-DPMNE municipalities have adopted decisions to hold the referendum on 15 October.