The elections in Macedonia brought political balance, but will they bring stability or restore democracy?

The early parliamentary elections, held on 11 December, had a very high turnout. In total, 1,191,521 voters (66.82% of the electorate) cast their ballot. In some electoral units the turnout was over 70%; however, it was lower in electoral unit six, where ethnic Albanians constitute a majority. There were a high number of invalid ballots (37,821). These were the most unpredictable elections Macedonia has had since its independence. The electoral competition was very close: pre-election polls showed that the VMRO-DPMNE, the incumbent party, led by two to four percent. SDSM, the opposition party, made a strong showing, but not strong enough for victory.

VMRO-DPMNE won 454,253 votes (38.12%) and SDSM 436,790 (36.6%), meaning the difference was only 17,463 votes (1.5%). VMRO-DPMNE won 51 mandates (out of a total of 120), and SDSM 49. Compared to the 2014 elections, VMRO-DPMNE lost 10 mandates and their electoral support decreased by over 30,000 votes. SDSM substantially increased their support, both in terms of votes and mandates: they received 150,000 more votes and 15 more mandates compared to their performance in 2014.

The two Albanian parties, DUI and DPA, suffered big losses. In 2014, DUI received 153,646 votes and 19 mandates; this has now dropped to 86,848 (7.29%) and 10 mandates. DPA, meanwhile, have dropped from 66,393 votes and 6 mandates to 31,027 (2.6%) and 2. DPA, once the second largest, has become the smallest Albanian party to be represented in parliament. New Albanian parties attracted many votes: Besa received 57,933 (4.86%) and 5 mandates, making them the second strongest Albanian party; the Alliance for Albanians (a coalition of splinter parties from DUI and DPA) received 35,145 votes (2.95%) and 3 mandates.

Other parties that contested the election did not cross the threshold to enter Parliament. These include two right-oriented coalitions, one smaller Albanian party, and a newly-formed left party (Levica), which was formed by experienced social justice activists from civil society and was an integral element in the social movements and protests of 2015/2016. However, these results should be taken with a grain of salt. It is likely that some parties will appeal the results. If there is a recount in some electoral units, or if there is a second round of voting, then, taking the narrow margins into consideration, there might be changes in the final distribution of mandates.

What do the outcomes mean?

Both VMRO-DPMNE and SDSM declared victory on the night of the elections. SDSM supporters celebrated in front of government buildings. VMRO-DPMNE also celebrated in front of the newly opened lavish party headquarters. Both parties were projecting their victory. SDSM's expectations were that they would either receive the same number of mandates as VMRO-DPMNE, or one more. VMRO-DPMNE was expecting to win with one or two mandates more than the opposition.

The State Electoral Commission (SEC) was slow in counting the votes. The preliminary results showed a very narrow margin between both parties. VMRO-DPMNE had a slight lead; however, it was unclear what this would mean for the distribution of mandates. The votes were so close that MOST, a domestic electoral observation NGO, declined to offer projections of votes and seats for any party, even though they have done so successfully in previous electoral cycles (including with incredible precision in Iraq), saying that the election was “too close to call”.

The careful counting continued through to 12 December, and doubts were raised about the credibility of reports that came from some municipal electoral boards. It was unclear whether the counting and reporting of electoral results was conducted properly in all locales. Both parties issued statements. SDSM insisted that the process of counting and re-counting should continue, and that all options for mandates were open. Meanwhile, VMRO-DPMNE claimed that no one should dare to steal the election from the Macedonian people, and their supporters began to rally in front of the SEC. Late on December 12, the SEC declared the distribution of mandates.

The next parliament will include no MPs from the diaspora, because the voter turnout in the diaspora was not sufficient to secure representation. Therefore, the next parliament will have 120 seats. The governing parties, VMRO-DPMNE and DUI, have an absolute majority. If they form a governing coalition again, they will have a very thin majority. The ruling majority will be shaky and unstable for governance and for passing legislation. They might seek options to increase their majority by inviting other Albanian parties or individual MPs to join the coalition.

SDSM will be a more powerful opposition in parliament. However, it is unclear to what extent it will be able to influence policy-making or to push for reforms. In previous legislative mandates, the government enacted exclusionary policy making. They refused all proposals coming from the opposition and pushed their own policies, sometimes with brute force. The new Albanian parties will bring new issues onto the agenda. During the campaign, they fleshed out new ideas for more collective rights. In addition, Besa gave higher prominence to religion in public discourse and appealed to Muslim communities.

Beside the empowered opposition, the split in the Albanian vote is the second surprise. It seems that Albanians cast a protest vote. They chose to punish DUI and DPA and to reward the newcomers. In addition, SDSM attracted extremely high support from Albanian voters. For example, SDSM received more votes than DUI in some municipalities which were affected by the inter-ethnic conflict in 2001. This reflects ethnic Albanians’ high dissatisfaction for the existing Albanian parties: Albanian voters condemn their cooperation with and support for Gruevski's regime. This will impact post-election coalition-building and inter-ethnic relations.

The campaign and voting

SDSM ran a mainly positive campaign. Their main campaign message was strongly focused on socio-economic improvements and redistribution, to the point of being left-populist. The party announced progressive taxation, an increase in minimum income, more money for subventions, private sector support, and investments in education and the health sector. There was very little divergence with the campaign promises of VMRO-DPMNE. For example, VMRO-DPMNE pledged to keep the flat tax system, but their other messages were the same as SDSM, although benefit levels were lower (i.e. lower minimum income, subventions and private sector support compared to SDSM).

The negative campaign of SDSM highlighted crime and corruption scandals that had been revealed by the wire-tapping scandals in 2015. However, the negative campaign was secondary to their positive campaign promises. On the other hand, VMRO-DPMNE led a much stronger negative campaign. They accused Zoran Zaev, the president of SDSM, of attempting to introduce bilingualism and federalisation, claiming that he would divide Macedonia. VMRO-DPMNE appealed to ethnic Macedonians and used ethno-national mobilisation to win support. They played on public fears of ethnic Albanians, who were supposedly plotting against the country with domestic and foreign enemies (such as the opposition and the international community). This negative campaign was so intense that by the end of the campaign Nikola Gruevski, the leader of VMRO-DPMNE, and his journalistic camarilla implicitly and explicitly issued death threats to Zaev.

During the campaign, SDSM reached out to Albanian voters for support. They promised one state and one society, in which all will enjoy equal chances. SDSM included Albanian candidates on their lists, and they will have several Albanian MPs. The newcomer Albanian parties appealed solely to Albanian voters, claiming that they still face discrimination, and promising to improve the status of Albanians and provide more collective rights.

Stability and democracy in 2017?!

These elections were a key element of the EU-brokered June/July agreement (the Przhino agreement) to bring Macedonia out of its political crisis. The agreement envisaged several measures with the aim of creating a level playing-field for the elections. However, most of them remained on paper. For example, efforts were made to clear the voter registry, but in the end it remained the same. The public broadcaster was granted a new news editor and an ad-hoc media regulating body was founded, but media balance was relative. The separation of party and state did not fully materialise prior to the elections. Domestic and international observers noted many cases of misuse of public resources and intimidation of public administration. Other malpractices, such as the buying of votes, continued, albeit on a lower level.

The end result of the elections is that there is now a political balance in Macedonia. However, it is highly questionable whether this will constitute a way out of the crisis. Bad governance, abuse of power, high level corruption and political criminality are the origins of the political crisis in Macedonia. Now the politicians who are the main cause of the crisis have a chance to remain in power.

If Nikola Gruevski returns to power, then it is unclear whether he will commit to the EU's proposed list of urgent reform priorities. The reform priorities are a pathway to institutional reforms, strengthening the rule of law and restoring democracy to Macedonia. But the reform priorities are also the key to deconstructing the authoritarian regime that Gruevski built up. In his victory speech, Gruevski announced that they had not only defeated SDSM, but also “others”. He did not specify who these others might be; but one can imagine that he sees all those that threaten to weaken his regime as enemies, including international actors.

During the campaign, Gruevski was explicit that the work of the Special Public Prosecutor is deepening the political crisis. Gruevski's plan to end the political crisis is to clamp down on the work of the Special Public Prosecutor and to consolidate his regime. Therefore, Gruevski's return to power may mean that it is more likely that Macedonia will go the “Turkish way”, emulating Erdogan's post-coup practices to consolidate his regime, rather than moving forward towards the EU, which involves implementing the difficult and painful urgent reform priorities.

It is likely that political polarisation will remain high and will transgress ethnic divisions. There remains strong political polarisation within the ethnic camps, for example between the SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE within the ethnic Macedonian camp, but also between old and new Albanian parties. At the same time, there is a strong polarisation between Gruevski's regime and the potential coalition partners and parties that oppose him. This ethnic and political fractionalisation provides impediments for creating and maintaining a ruling majority in parliament.

The formation of a government may prove to be a big challenge. Even if a ruling majority is found, it is unclear how stable it would it be. After the Albanian protest vote and Gruevski's ethno-national mobilization, it will be difficult for VMRO-DPMNE to establish a ruling coalition with an Albanian party. With local elections coming up in May 2017, the DUI will have to think twice about whether to enter into government with Gruevski and under what conditions. If Gruevski is unable to find a coalition partner, the SDSM will need at least two Albanian parties, and again it will have a fragile majority.

One way to provide stability is to form a wide coalition government. In that case there would be potential for a wide and strong parliamentary majority. However, it is unclear whether the parties can agree to be partners in government, and if they agree in principle, then the challenge would be to agree on the division of government positions. Even if the whole process is completed, it is unclear whether they would be constructive partners in government. The example of the technical government before the elections, when SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE were both in government, demonstrates that they are more ready to obstruct and fight with each other than to work together. Therefore, if there is a wide coalition government, then Macedonia will have only relative political stability. There will be a strong majority in parliament, but with political deadlock in government.

The results of these elections do not promise more political stability or an improvement of democracy in Macedonia. A pathway towards political stability is possible, but at the cost of effective governance. This will not necessarily improve democracy in Macedonia; however, it may be sufficient to continue empowering political accountability. The principal aim should be to create conditions for the work of the Special Public Prosecutor to continue, and to have objective and impartial court processes. Strengthening the rule of law, fully investigating the implications of the wire-tapped materials and encouraging proper judicial processes are much better guarantees that democracy will be restored in Macedonia.

Dane Taleski

Dane Taleski received his PhD in Political Science from the Central European University in Budapest. His research interests include post-conflict democratization, transformation of rebel groups, political parties, ethnic politics and Europeanization. His latest article, “Regulating Party Politics in the Western Balkans: On the Legal Sources of Party System Development in Macedonia” (co-authored with Fernando Casal Bértoa) is forthcoming in Democratization, and he has co-edited a research study “Monitoring Regional Cooperation in South East Europe” (FES: Berlin, 2013).

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