Macedonian election stalemate resolved

August 17, 2020
Leader of the ruling SDSM party Zoran Zaev. Photo: EPA-EFE/Georgi Licovski

The Republic of North Macedonia (hereafter Macedonia) held its parliamentary election amid the global COVID-19 pandemic on July 15, resulting in a hung parliament. The centre-left Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM)-led coalition and the centre-right Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) won 46 and 44 seats, respectively.

This result means neither party can form a parliamentary majority on their own, and will rely on the cooperation of smaller parties, in backroom deals, to form a coalition government. This is not likely to occur before the middle of August and an announcement made at the end of August or early September.

[UPDATE: On August 18, the leaders of the centre-left Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) and the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) agreed to form a coalition government.]

Left-wing party Levica won two seats and 4.1% of the popular vote. It campaigned on a platform of left-wing patriotism, anti-imperialism and a “movement towards socialism”. One of its aims is to reverse the contentious name change of the country, which the SDSM government finalised to clear the way for the country to enter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU).

Levica’s other policies included changing the electoral system to allow popular votes to be reflected in parliament, denouncing Taiwan to improve ties with China, and not recognising Kosovo’s sovereignty to improve relations with Serbia. It is the fastest-growing minor party in Macedonia, increasing its vote share by 300%, mostly among young people who would otherwise have voted for either SDSM or VMRO-DPMNE.

The most probable explanation for the shift among young people is their level of education and information about global world events. As a generation that is more literate in English, access to the internet allows exposure to different political ideas and possibilities, as opposed to the older generation, whose information sources are restricted to the mainstream media, which acts as the mouthpiece of the government.

Apart from Levica, a few of the larger minor parties, most of which have a strong ethnic Albanian supporter base, are the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), the Albanian Alliance (AA), Integra and the Besa Movement.

The country’s name change was a sticking point and played out in this election. Since its independence in 1991, the state has been known as the Republic of Macedonia, and recognised by more than 130 member states of the United Nations.

However, there was much opposition to the use of this name by Greece (as well as Bulgaria and Serbia) whose northern-most state is also known as Macedonia. Some consider the Greek region of Macedonia to be part of the same nation as the Republic of Macedonia, with many in the republic believing it is territory that was illegally occupied by the Greeks and negotiated away by other neighbouring countries.

This question of identity led to widespread opposition to the name change from the “Republic of Macedonia” to the “Republic of North Macedonia”. The name change was the result of a compromise reached by the SDSM government with Greece to enable Macedonia to enter the EU and NATO, and was pushed through last year, via a controversial referendum.

This compromise resulted in Bulgaria deciding to block Macedonia’s accession into the EU based on their refusal to recognise the Macedonian nation and language.

The accession into the EU and NATO divided Macedonians and likely influenced the vote. Proponents argue that EU entry would result in eventual prosperity via increasing trade opportunities, and NATO entry would ensure stability in the region. Opponents, which include most VMRO-DPMNE supporters, argue that EU entry does not guarantee prosperity, while entry into NATO was either unnecessary, or might strain ties with neighbouring Serbia, which is closely aligned with Russia.

While VMRO-DPMNE originally started negotiations with Greece regarding the naming issue in the late 2000’s, it later tried to capitalise on the electorate’s resentment of the name change. However, after entering NATO in 2019, it accepted it as part of the new reality.

There also appeared to be a generational divide in support between the two major parties. Younger voters, who are mostly bearing the brunt of the country’s poor economic situation, were more likely to support SDSM, as they perceive that the name change is a small price to pay for the economic opportunities they believe the EU provides.

Older voters, on the other hand, are less willing to take up a pro-EU stance, with the naming issue featuring prominently in the formation of the position that they hold.

Similarly, the Macedonian diaspora, many of whom live in the United States, Canada, Australia and western Europe, is heavily biased against the SDSM incumbents, on account of the name change.

It is worth noting that the higher living standards that the diaspora enjoys has resulted in them being disconnected from the reality of the average young Macedonian, who has to consider the everyday reality and struggles and weigh that against the importance of the country’s name.

The voter turnout in this election, at just over 50%, was also notably lower than the previous election, which was 65%. While the pandemic might have contributed to the lower turnout, it could also be possibly explained by people’s disillusionment with both major parties and the hopeless general state of affairs in the country.

There was also a clear swing towards minor parties in general. It was likely that the protest vote against corruption was a key factor in this shift towards the minor parties, with both SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE losing more than 100,000 votes each, while DUI lost a third of its vote. It is well known that due to the complex history of the nation and multiple vested interests, corruption exists at all levels of government, regardless of which party is in power.

This swing might also be explained by voters realising that the major parties were similar when it comes to bread-and-butter issues like infrastructure, air pollution, disproportionately high fines for even the most minor of indiscretions, healthcare and cost of living. Many poor policies have had flow-on effects that the government did not anticipate, and instead of managing the budget to account for these, it has simply pushed the costs down onto the people.

For example, a lack of filtration systems in government-linked manufacturing companies has led to a rise in air pollution. This is further exacerbated by households using firewood and coal for heating in winter, as people cannot afford other more environmentally-friendly heating systems.

Public healthcare infrastructure has not progressed for the past 20 years, and recent modernisation has focused more on buildings than equipment. Furthermore, some specialised healthcare areas do not have enough doctors, resulting in a rising waiting list for medical care. Private healthcare is not a financially sound option for many households, especially those of lower socioeconomic status, who are likely to be living off credit.

These are only a few of the reasons why there is public disillusionment with both major political parties — neither party cares enough about the people to make effective changes, especially when private interests are paramount.

While SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE are the major parties, the outcome of these elections was seen to be determined by parties with huge ethnic Albanian supporter bases.

As of the last census in 2002, about a quarter of the population were found to be ethnic Albanians. However, it is now widely acknowledged that the real number of ethnic Albanians in Macedonia is far less than shown in the census, with most of the included figure consisting of dual-citizenship holders living in Kosovo.

The reason for not holding a more recent census is because if the ethnic Albanian population is found to be less than 20%, the special provisions accorded to them (the result of negotiations between the Macedonian government and Albanian interest groups) might be ruled constitutionally invalid. The history of these provisions is messy and involves multiple competing interests that have implications for the country’s future.

For now, the election has resulted in an unstable government, deadlocked in a stalemate, due to the various complexities of Macedonian society and competing interests. It is difficult to predict what direction the country will take, including its attitudes and involvement in the EU and NATO.

[This article was updated by the editors on August 20 to reflect the coalition agreement between SDSM and DUI.]

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