Friday, June 21, 2024
 
 

North Macedonia’s elections unfold, marginally, as directed

Zaev faces tough challenge to build coalition

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To the delight of North Macedonia’s western supporters, the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) landed a razor-thin electoral majority on July 15 in the country’s COVID-19 postponed elections.  Accordingly, former Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has been given the mandate for his SDSM coalition to attempt to form a new government; reviving the economy and accelerating North Macedonia’s Euro-Atlantic trajectory are his top objectives.
Most analysts are viewing the results as the hoped-for victory for the West and a loss for Russia and other external actors who sought to expand their influence at the expense of NATO and the EU.
Coalition calculations
As no party won the absolute majority in the tight election, coalition-building in the 120-seat Parliament could turn out to be vastly more complicated than a simple mathematical exercise.
Participation in the elections has been estimated at 51%, reduced somewhat thanks to the resurgence of COVID across the country.  Also, the polls were opened for three days to allow for smaller crowds in voting centres.
According to initial results, the SDSM won around 36% for 46 seats, whereas the ultranationalist VMRO-DPMNE party took 34.8% of the vote for 44 seats.
The votes received by the country’s fractured Albanian political parties put them once again in the position of kingmaker.  The largest of the country’s ethnic Albanian parties, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), won around 11.3% of the vote, for 15 seats.
The DUI has suggested an ethnic Albanian become Prime Minister, in view of the country’s large Albanian population, known to be at least 25% but possibly as high as 40% (a new census which would answer this extremely sensitive question has been delayed for years).  The Albanian parties collectively increased their elected MPs compared to 2016, while the leading Slavophone parties lost ground.
The Alliance for Albanians/Alternative helped to split the vote of the Albanian community, winning 8.5% of the vote for 12 MPs.
Conventional coalition mathematics suggest an SDSM/DUI coalition will re-emerge to govern the country with at least 61 MPs once the allocation of ministerial positions has been decided.
Time to switch out of caretaker mode
A caretaker government has been running North Macedonia since PM Zaev resigned, as he had promised, from his post in January after the EU failed in October 2019 to provide a start date for accession talks. French President Emmanuel Macron had blocked further EU Enlargement until important reforms were made in the accession process, most notably that the process would actually become reversible to prevent democratic backsliding in candidate countries, instead of an almost automatic, but sometimes excruciatingly slow, entry guarantee.
That procedural issue was resolved in Brussels in March and the green light both North Macedonia and Albania had long sought to begin accession negotiations was approved.  The formal accession negotiations will begin with the EU this fall, a priority for Berlin under the German Presidency of the EU Council.
In March, the COVID-19 crisis necessitated postponing the national elections originally scheduled for April until July.  The net impact of all of this was that former PM Zaev was unable to participate in the festivities surrounding North Macedonia’s entry in NATO in March and was also not in the PM’s office when the EU accession decision was taken, two critical steps in the country’s Euro-Atlantic evolution he had worked so hard to achieve.
Zaev can claim credit for resolving the “Name Dispute” with neighbouring Greece and negotiated the final details of the so-called Prespes Agreement with then-Greek PM Alexis Tsipras in June 2018, which was ultimately ratified in both countries by the beginning of 2019 (Tsipras was one of the first to congratulate Zaev on the apparent victory).
The country then formally changed its name from Macedonia to North Macedonia, and the transition in all official documents is ongoing.  Use of the adjective “Macedonian” to describe the citizens of North Macedonia in various fora remains a flashpoint.
The conservative Greek government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis, elected in July 2019, which fought hard against ratification of the Prespes Agreement while in opposition, now tolerates it as a pre-existing international commitment of the Greek state and has promised to support Skopje’s efforts towards EU integration.
The extent of foreign intervention (meaning US and German) to get the Prespes Agreement signed and ultimately ratified in both countries remains a hot issue and was front and centre in the North Macedonian election debate.
Zaev had also previously signed a friendship deal with neighbouring Bulgaria, removing another impediment to prepare for EU membership, but nationalist voices in Bulgaria are still working hard to keep controversies regarding the “Macedonian” identity alive.
Hackers disrupt reporting
On July 15, preliminary election results were only occasionally visible on the website of the State Election Commission as the vote count proceeded, which crashed at least partially due to foreign hacker attacks according to the Commission’s head Oliver Derkovski. He later stated the overall vote tallying process had not been impacted and foreign observers in Skopje have otherwise not focused on this problem or cited other major irregularities.

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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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