Macedonia: Elections and Nationalism

Having seen a troubled accession period to the EU, Macedonia looks at though it might be swinging further towards ethnic nationalism and authoritarianism.

 In April this year, general elections to elect the President and members of Parliament were held in the Republic of Macedonia. The first round of the presidential elections was held on the 13th. Incumbent president Gjorge Ivanov, running for a second term for the ruling party VMRO DPMNE, got 449,000 votes, while his main rival Stevo Pendarovski, the Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia (SDSM) candidate, won 326,000 votes. This was the eighth general election since Macedonia became independent in the 1990s and the third early parliamentary election in a row. It is also the fifth presidential election since independence.

A peculiarity of this year is that, in the second round of the presidential elections, a parliamentary election was also held. The country has a parliamentary political system which only shifts towards a semi-presidential system when strong presidents are elected – thus, the electoral campaign before the first round of the presidential elections was a prelude for the much more important parliamentary elections campaign.

Gjorgje Ivanov faced three challengers: Stevo Pendarovski supported by the former communist SDSM; ILjaz Halimi from the ethnic Albanian opposition party; and DPA and Zoran Popovski from the newly founded GROM. The coalition partner of VMRO-DPMNE, the ethnic Albanian party the DUI, boycotted the presidential elections and 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 candidates to win in the first round. Only president Kiro Gligorov at the apex of his popularity could reach this result in 1994.

Much of the rhetoric of both the VMRO-DPMNE and Ivanov was about the number of project implemented, investments made and forthcoming. While SDSM accused the ruling party of authoritarian tendencies VMRO-DPMNE noted that Pendarovaki 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.

“A few minutes after the polls closed, I’m here to say that SDSM and our opposition coalition will not recognize the election process, neither the presidential nor the parliamentary,” Zoran Zaev, leader of the centre-left SDSM, told reporters. He accused Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his conservative VMRO-DPMNE party of “abusing the entire state system”, saying there were “threats and blackmails and massive buying of voters” and demanded a new election.

Relative progress?

Macedonia is one of Europe’s poorest countries with unemployment above 28 percent, but Gruevski’s government has achieved solid economic growth, low public debt and a rise in foreign investment.

For a long time, the Republic of Macedonia was considered a relative success story in the region, having no major conflicts, a fairly successful state-building process and no territory issues. Furthermore, after years of showing dedication to implementing the Ohrid Agreement – the peace deal signed by the Macedonian government and ethnic Albanian representatives in 2001 – Macedonia became a formal candidate for EU membership in 2005. However, the long-standing name dispute with Greece and disagreements with Bulgaria remain impediments to Macedonia’s EU and NATO membership ambitions. Therefore, holding peaceful, fair and free presidential and municipal elections in 2009 and general elections in 2011, Macedonia has passed an important test.

After a mild fall in 2012, the economy expanded 3.1 percent last year and should grow by roughly the same amount this year. Foreign direct investment rose from a modest $89.7 million in 2012 to $334 million in 2013, mostly into car part manufactures. “We haven’t succeeded in everything we wanted [. . .] but we have shown Macedonia can be successful”, said Gruevski.

Thumbing his nose at the Greeks, Gruevski has presided over an ambitious and costly project “Skopje 2014”, which aims to give the city a more monumental appearance. Opposition parties have accused Gruevski of creeping authoritarianism and corruption. Gruevski says any complaints of authoritarianism come from opposition that lack of concrete political program to unseat him.

Skopje 2014: nation branding for Macedonia

What is the project “Skopje 2014” all about? It is mostly is about the façade. The purpose of the project is to give the capital a more classical appeal by the year 2014. Also, it is worth mentioning that everything is built in a baroque style, which is not typical for Macedonia. The project was announced in 2010 and aims to construct museums and government buildings, as well as the erection of monuments of historical figures. It is important to mention that the project is seen as a part of the government’s “antiquisation” policy, in which the country seeks to claim ancient Macedonian figures like Alexander the Great and Phillip II of Macedon and deny the Greek heritage of these figures. Old facades and bridges are being renovated in order to match the project’s main ideology.

The project has attracted controversy. Supporters say it will transform the image of a city, claiming that it will restore a missing sense of national pride and create a more metropolitan atmosphere. Critics, on the other hand, complain about the cost of the job and the transparency of the contracts given to the architects and designers. Some stress the idea that a relatively poor country should spend its resources more prudently. They also say that the project is an attempt to distract people from the country’s real problems. In April, after the local elections, the government revealed the report on the costs of the project, stating that around €208 million was spent on it in total. But as opponents say the real cost of the project is much higher, €500 million or even €1 billion.

As Igor Micevski argues, if we look from afar on the double elections in Macedonia, we may view them as a clear and overwhelming victory for the ruling nationalistic and populist VMRO-DPMNE. He says this is what PM Nikola Gruevski wants everyone to see. He connects the state nationalism to the NATO summit held in 2008. Since the Bucharest NATO summit in 2008, when due to Greece’s opposition Macedonia was denied accession, the government of Macedonia has begun to display signs of authoritarian rule.

The project had its political goal to demonise SDSM as a “traitorous structure working against the Macedonian national interests”.

Control over the media

The ruling party has also achieved a grip on the media sector. In 2011 the most popular and critical TV station A1 was closed down by the state. Despite a peaceful election day, the OSCE monitoring report of the process indicates a number of serious shortcomings and remarks that “the campaign of the government party did not adequately separate party from state activities, at odds with paragraph 5,4 of the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document”. The European Commission endorsed the report and stated in the press release: “Commissioner Füle pointed to the repeated OSCE/ODIHR recommendations regarding biased media coverage and the lack of separation between state and party activities, which are covered by the Copenhagen political criteria”.

It is interesting to mention that until now no single foreign country has congratulated Macedonia on the elections results – and neither the European Union nor the USA. They say that the situation is quite complicated. The Commissioner issued a statement after the elections that they are aware of the opposition’s concerns.

The outcome of the elections

The pre-election period and the results of the actual elections seem to cause scepticism for Macedonia’s political future. The results were not surprising, but the reaction from the opposition not to recognise the elections was. As Cvete Koneska observes the fact that opposition didn’t recognize the elections as fair and democratic is surprising because in terms of conduct, the electoral process wasn’t dramatically different to previous elections. She connects the decision of the opposition parties not to accept the election outcome to the OSCE’s reaction after the first round of the elections, calling Macedonia’s government to counter the existing democratic deficit.

Is Macedonia moving into another serious political crisis? One thing is clear, that the process tells us little new or encouraging about democracy in the country. Despite the fact that Macedonia is a unitary state, the mode of politics that sees ethnic antagonisms and threats as politically viable tools continues to be validated as an expression of patriotism.

Will ethnic tension be more visible? The project of the state building and nationalism played a key role in the privatization of state assets in Macedonia during the early 90s. Ethnic Macedonians were told they were suffering because of unjust obstacles in realizing their own national state, and ethnic Albanians felt their status slip to that second-rank citizens. Thus, nationalism was experienced as a post-socialist ideology in Macedonia. The splitting of working-class communities into smaller social units of households made it easier for nationalism to split people into ethic groups.

The new political situation in Macedonia calls for a serious rethinking of political perspectives in society, since ethno-nationalist tendencies increase tensions, confrontations and possible outburst of right-wing populism by mobilizing mobs that might test the future of the country.

It is very difficult to predict if Macedonia is going to face a larger political crisis or not. For now, it is clear that the opposition is refusing to take up the mandate and is calling for a ‘caretaker’ technical government, which is something that neither the ruling party nor the largest Albanian party are likely to accept. Will Macedonia end up with a parliament without the Social Democrats? (In fact, that would not be a first case in the Balkans – for a long time in Albania, the opposition refused to go to parliament.) Thus, it is not going to be entirely new, but it will most likely harden politics, make it more confrontational and cause low-scale but prolonged political crises.

Author: Teona Surmava

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