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Following election flop, Zaev announces resignation plans

Zaev has used this gambit before; some anticipated another Zaev resignation bluff after October’s Brdo outcome, delaying EU Enlargement
CC BY-SA 4.0
Zoran Zaev official portrait 2020

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North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev announced his planned resignation on November 1 after his social-democratic party massively lost the second round of municipal elections on Sunday, October 31, providing another week of work for Balkan journalists, analysts, and foreign correspondents. A number of election support organizations working in North Macedonia had previously expressed concern that the administrative preparations for the municipal elections were less than hoped for, possibly reducing participation and effective tabulation. 
Zaev had promised only a few days earlier to resign if the ruling SDSM party which he leads failed to win the Skopje mayor’s race, a high-risk gambit that exploded in his face on this occasion because it appeared to mobilize his opponents more effectively than his supporters. As a result, Zaev’s party was defeated in the most important municipal contest – the mayor’s race in the North Macedonian capital, with incumbent Petre Shilegov losing to right-nationalist (VMRO-DPMNE) challenger Danela Arsovska, also the first time a woman has taken the mayorship.
Zaev had previously resigned in early 2020 in protest of the EU’s failure to commit to launch accession negotiations for his country in late 2019, something Zaev had been relying on once the Prespes Agreement with Greece, signed with much acrimony in 2018, had been ratified by both sides, a process which dragged on into 2019. This resignation triggered new parliamentary elections in which his SDSM party won a majority and eventually formed a new coalition that remained in power until the present.

No rush for the exit
Zaev’s resignation requires parliamentary approval and since the coalition he assembled after the 2020 elections, including important Albanian minority parties, still commands a narrow lead in parliament (62 of 120), unexpected developments leaving him or his successor in office are not out of the question. Local media reported on November 1 that Zaev’s diverse set of coalition partners were actively urging him to reconsider his decision to resign, and under the North Macedonian constitution, the coalition retains the ability to name another prime minister without calling elections. Beyond that, Zaev also announced that he would remain as head of a caretaker government until new elections can be scheduled if that is decided. 

In view of the substantial gains VMRO-DPMNE achieved across the country in the municipal elections, it appears the governing coalition would face a challenging time if it rejected outright the idea of new parliamentary elections. Hristijan Mickoski, leader of VMRO-DPMNE has already declared, “there is no alternative to immediate elections because a stable government is needed.”

Regional impact 
Until the path forward is clarified, it would be premature to analyze the worst-case scenarios for the region, but that will not stop the pro-Enlargement NGOs and think tanks from generating a few dozen articles based on their concerns. Since North Macedonia became NATO’s 30th member last year, external security threats remain minimal. The concern is largely focused on the potential for a shift to a right-nationalist policy approach in Skopje that will further complicate the resolution of the ongoing language/identity dispute with Bulgaria, assuming a government there can be formed after elections later this month. That can only further delay progress on launching accession negotiations, but with no clear decision from member states in support of further Enlargement, many realists do not see much actual time lost unless the political and rule-of-law situation in North Macedonia deteriorates further. 
It is understood that Washington and Brussels, who both have invested many years of economic and political assistance to Zaev and his team, will work with any new government that emerges and attempt to sustain ongoing efforts towards Euro-Atlantic integration. Ultimately, a prolonged period of political instability in North Macedonia may focus attention on the need to actually open the EU accession process sooner rather than later, using the tried and true Balkan formula that a certain amount of noise/trouble is required to gain the attention needed. 

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CEO/Editor-in-Chief.  Former US diplomat with previous assignments in Eastern Europe, the UN, SE Asia, Greece, across the Balkans, as well as Washington DC.

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