On 13th of April, Macedonia had its first round of the Presidential elections. The incumbent, Professor Gjorgje Ivanov, supported by the conservative VMRO-DPMNE, faced three challengers: Stevo Pendarovski supported by the former communist SDSM; Iljaz Halimi from the ethnic Albanian opposition party, DPA and Zoran Popovski from the newly founded GROM. Turnout was 49%, less than in 2009 when at the first round of presidential elections it was 57%, and much less than at the last local elections last spring when turnout was 67%. The coalition partner of VMRO-DPMNE, ethnic Albanian party the DUI, boycotted the presidential elections and actively campaigned to stop their kin from voting. Since the Electoral Code requires 50%+1 of the registered vote to win outright, it is very difficult for any candidate to win in the first round, a feat achieved only by the late president Kiro Gligorov at the apex of his popularity in 1994. On Sunday however, unlike the presidential elections in 2009 when at least three candidates vied for the second place in the first electoral round (thus getting a chance to turn the results in the runoff, something Boris Trajkovski managed to do in 1999 against Tito Petkovski) all pundits and published opinion polls projected Ivanov and Pendarovski to win the most votes. Thus a number of undecided, occasional voters and weak supporters of the parties did not bother to vote. This factor and the DUI boycott probably influenced the low turnout. In the end Ivanov got 449,068, Pendarovski 326,133, Halimi 38,966, Popovski 31,366 plus 23,604 invalid votes - with the candidates of VMRO-DPMNE and SDSM making it to the second round. A peculiarity of this year is that in the second round of the presidential elections in Macedonia will also hold a parliamentary vote. The parliamentary vote was called one year earlier than it was scheduled, in part due to the fear that the census for the second round of presidential elections (40%+1) will not be reached. Since the country has a parliamentary political system which only shifts towards a semi-presidential system when strong presidents are elected (Gligorov) or become strong in due time (Trajkovski towards the end of his mandate) the electoral campaign before the first round of the presidential elections was a prelude for the much more important parliamentary elections campaign. Ivanov's campaign was in fact de facto synchronised with the overall VMRO-DPMNE campaign, while Pendarovski presented himself as more independent from SDSM candidate. While the incumbent projected himself as a part of a winning team, cooperating and aiding the good deeds of the government, the SDSM challenger attempted to portray himself as a man of the people, a consensual candidate. Much of the rhetoric of both the VMRO-DPMNE and Ivanov was about the number of projects implemented, investments made and forthcoming. The SDSM and Pendarovski both criticized the passivity and alleged servility of Ivanov to the ruling party leadership and promised economic reforms that will end the misery of the Macedonian common person. While SDSM accused the ruling party of authoritarian tendencies VMRO-DPMNE noted that Pendarovski has not made clear his position on the Greek insistence that Macedonia change its name, indirectly accusing SDSM of being not patriotic and being only thirsty for power. Both parties presented to the public a number of corruption scandals by leading members of the opposite party.
A key question is whether or not Ivanov's lead is uncatchable. Overall, Ivanov's result is close to the estimated number of votes VMRO-DPMNE won last year at the local elections (449,068 compared to 457,000), while Pendarovski's result is very close to the estimated number of votes SDSM won last year (326,133 compared to 332,000). While the current partners in the VMRO-DPMNE coalition competed on their own at the last elections got some 51,000 votes, those of SDSM got some 6,000, making the total tally of last years' estimated results 507,500 for the incumbent coalition against 338,000 of the SDSM led coalition. Other parties at the local elections had some 11,000 votes. It is unclear if and howthe voters for Popovski will vote in the second round especially since GROM is led by a run-away from the SDSM. The ethnic Albanian vote in Macedonian elections, since the current PR system was introduced in 2006 lingers around 240,000-250,000 votes. While the DUI has announced that it does not prefer any of the two presidential candidates, Pendarovski and the SDSM leadership has campaigned in ethnic Albanian areas, also putting billboards and ads in the Albanian language. To win, Pendarovski would need not only to repeat the result from the first round, but also to convince a high number of voters of GROM and the other smaller parties to vote for him, on top of winning at least a half of the ethnic Albanian vote. Yet it is difficult to envisage thatmany ethnic Albanian voters would indeed vote for Pendarovski in the second round, certainly not in the numbers necessary for him to win. An Ivanov win combined with the estimated win of the VMRO-DPMNE led coalition at the parliamentary elections will mean continuation of the cooperation of President Ivanov with the policies of the government, making the role of the president auxiliary to the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. This might mean better coordination in attracting foreign direct investments but also very weak influence of the president in domestic policies, a criticism levied at him on a number of occasions in his previous mandate. Pendarovski’s win would be a surprise and would also mean a difficult period of cohabitation between the expected government led by VMRO- DPMNE and the SDSM presidential candidate. He is an outspoken person and a fierce critic of the policies of Prime Minister Gruevski. Victory for Pendarovski would help the struggling opposition survive the challenge by a number of newly founded parties such as GROM and Alliance for Positive Macedonia both vying to become the main challengers to the ruling VMRO-DPMNE.
Zhidas Daskalovski holds a PhD from the Political Science Department, Central European University. He has published numerous scholarly articles on politics in the Southeast European region, as well as co-edited books including: Understanding the War in Kosovo (Frank Cass: London, 2003) and Ten Years after the Ohrid Framework Agreement: Lessons (to be) Learned from the Macedonian Experience, (CRPM and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung: Skopje 2012).