Macedonia: escape from the abyss or sinking even deeper?

The “most important” elections

On the 11th of December, the citizens of Macedonia will vote in yet another early election. Early elections have become the norm since 2006, when the last regular parliamentary elections were held. Many political and public personalities have described the current election cycle as Macedonia’s “most important” elections since its independence.  This election owes its importance to a two-year-long political crisis resulting from the revelation of a wire-tapping scandal by the main opposition party, SDSM. The scandalous content of the wire-tapped conversations provoked some of the largest social movements in Macedonia. However, the discontent lead to little real change. It is this lack of change, or of significant change, following the very public and consistent outrage of the citizens in the streets of numerous cities across the country, that presents the most revealing indicator of the state of democracy in Macedonia.

                                   Copyright: Robert Atanasovski

These elections are indeed important, but whether they will be decisive or mark a significant shift in Macedonian politics is less certain. The public political debate has been very polarizing, and still marred by nationalist rhetoric as some parties seek to gain or maintain the nationalist vote. Even the introduction of many new parties to the political landscape of the country has provoked little change on the issues or the political approach to them, which remains limited.  The prolonged extension of the crisis has left many citizens tired and confused. The crisis has had many peaks and lows: the debates have been stifling and, at times, quite distant from reality. On the last day of the elections, the scene for real change is still not set. 

The winners and the losers

The Macedonian political scene has many players, few alternatives, and very little news in terms of policy development. Many of the parties aspiring to governance rely heavily on the simple fact that they are not the current governing party; that they are different, and that this alone should provide enough incentive to vote for them.  The polls are too close to call, and it is still not evident whether this game will pay off for the big players. Two days before the elections, the current government, VMRO-DPMNE and its coalition of smaller parties, are leading in the polls. Though leading by a very slight margin, their victory is not unlikely.

The opposition, SDSM, could win the election with the support of undecided voters, the activists of the social movements, and the Albanian votes, which they have been courting. But there are too many demographics they must cater to, while the demographics of the VMRO have remained the same and more stable. If the core voters that have always voted for VMRO, particularly in the smaller cities and more rural areas, do so again, VMRO’s chances are stronger. SDSM is also in competition with the new parties, which could draw the vote away from them. Levica, a party which originated through the protest movements, has gained support from young activists who supported the protests and believe that the SDSM has not kept in line with their hopes and expectations. On the other hand, they have also come up against strong opposition from the Albanian parties. If there is anything that all parties have agreed upon throughout their campaign, it is that Albanians should vote for Albanian parties.

If we consider the position of the current governing Albanian party, their chances for success are stronger. DUI will likely win the majority of the Albanian vote; but this majority will be significantly lower than in any past election, which is likely to also be the case for VMRO. The position of DPA, as the second largest Albanian party (a fact which secured them a seat in the Perzhino negotiations) is not as certain. The Besa Movement and the Alliance for Albanians, which includes a faction of the DPA, namely the Movement for Reforms in the DPA, might overtake their vote share. There might also be a decrease in the overall number of Albanian MPs in parliament, even with the Albanian SDSM MPs, as many candidates may not pass the threshold but considerably ‘damage’ the other parties that do. It will remain to be seen how the voters of DUI will choose to ‘punish’ their performance: whether they will stay at home or vote for other parties. The repercussions of these outcomes would be very different. 

Whichever the scenario, the citizens will most likely be the ‘losers’ in the short run. Real change, especially the systemic change needed in Macedonia, takes time. Many might become disillusioned and disheartened by the road ahead: however, as is usually the case, one road is better than the other, albeit slightly.

The possible scenarios and conundrums

If VMRO wins, its victory will deal a strong blow to those citizens who dared to vote differently, and to those who spent days protesting against the government. It will be a strong blow against liberal thinkers and the hope for a return to democracy. Apart from the dark symbolism of VMRO’s win, it is the actions that they might undertake which could lead the country towards a deeper crisis. Considering that they have received a “blank cheque”, they could push for the closure of the Special Public Prosecutor’s Office (SJO). The SJO has faced continuous obstruction in their work, and the Constitutional Court has still not declared whether the body is constitutional or not, which has served as an ‘excuse’ for courts to reject their requests. One of the reasons the Constitutional Court has still not made a decision on this issue is the pre-electoral setting: so once the VMRO is sure of its support, they could move swiftly against them. However, VMRO will have to form a coalition with an Albanian party, and in the last debate among the General Secretaries of the Albanian parties, they all declared that they would not make a coalition with the party if Gruevski would be Prime Minister, possibly setting the stage for a different Prime Minister. They have also all expressed their support for the SJO, which might extend its existence, but not indefinitely.

If the SDSM wins, it will be a great triumph for the social movements and for the citizens who protested and openly defied the government. It will also be a relief for many of the public administrators who have been employed by VMRO but chose to vote differently. The SDSM has promised not to fire any public administrators: while this is a much needed approach to the management of a highly politicized public administration, it might also present challenges, as many of the employees hired by VMRO are still loyal to the party and might cause considerable obstructions. This is one of the reasons why the road will only be slightly better. The SDSM has had to cater to many demographics, and this will invariably lead to some disappointment among some of these groups, as it would be impossible to please all of them.  If they win, their margin will be slight, as would be the case with VMRO, calling for larger coalitions. The coalition parties might strengthen them: for example a coalition with Levica could be beneficial in policy development, but it might also block their operations due to there being too many sides and too little consensus. This becomes even more evident with the Albanian parties. If DUI indeed wins the majority Albanian vote, the SDSM government will need to enter coalition with a party that was part of the government against whom they fought. They might also need to include other Albanian parties that have openly called for a federalised Macedonia. Even though VMRO has easily navigated through such differences of opinion through populist rhetoric, it remains to be seen how SDSM would reconcile these claims, particularly considering that it will have to be accountable to Albanian voters of their own.

Whatever the outcome, the organisation of these elections has left so many loose ends that, no matter who loses, the results will most probably be contested. This will truly cause a deeper crisis, as the contestation of results in Macedonia was a problem in the last elections, and it will serve to delegitimize whoever the new winners might be. This would mean that Macedonia’s public institutions would continue in a limbo state, until they collapse or there is drastic change.

The way forward

These elections will not be the promised escape from the crisis: whichever party wins, they will face challenges. If SDSM wins, they will be more open to change and sympathetic to a return of democracy; however, they will inherit a country with deep issues and divisions. The crisis might deepen, or it might reach a point where it becomes stagnant, but volcanic nonetheless. Macedonia, and its citizens, will need help, not only from the international community, but by local actors as well. The international community must not abandon the Macedonian project. They will have to drastically change their approach, however, and a good start would be increased and honest engagement with local civil society organizations. The CSOs, in turn, will have to work hard in the building of democracy from below, and in building trust in a polarized society. Lastly, the spirit of dissension and the hunger for accountability that the social movements have brought about must not stop now, regardless of who wins and who loses: Macedonia’s true fight does not end, but begins, after 11 December, 2016.

Lura Pollozhani

Lura Pollozhani works as a University Assistant at the Centre for Southeast European Studies (CSEES). Lura has previously worked at the Secretariat for European Affairs in the Republic of Macedonia and for the European Centre for Minority Rights (ECMI) Kosovo. Lura completed her Msc at LSE on European Studies: Ideas and Identities with a focus on Macedonia and EU Conflict Management.

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