There was a festive mood Skopje on the night of October 15, as hundreds of cars carrying supporters of the ruling Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) converged on the government building. Waving Macedonia’s red and yellow national flag, they rushed to celebrate the party’s resounding victory in the local election.
The result, which still has to be officially confirmed, represents a landslide switch from the opposition VMRO-DPMNE — which lost power at the end of May after a decade of rule and previously held most mayor posts in the country — to the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM). The local elections were seen as a popularity test for the rival parties four months after the SDSM came to power.
According to the state election commission’s data, the SDSM is leading in 50 municipalities, while VMRO-DPMNE has a lead in just nine municipalities, after 96.6% of the votes were counted. The Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), one of the parties representing Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian minority and the SDSM’s coalition partner, leads in 12 municipalities, pushing VMRO-DPMNE into third place.
The state election commission will announce the first early results later on October 16.
“I congratulate all citizens of Macedonia on the victory, a victory with which the SDSM and its coalition will complete the changes in the whole country,” the head of the SDSM’s campaign Mile Zecevic said in a party statement.
Zecevic added that “this day is a holiday for democracy and an illustration of a peaceful, free and dignified expression of the right to vote of every citizen.”
Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said late on October 15 that the SDSM had won the election in the first round in 37 municipalities and is leading in 15 others including in the capital Skopje. The SDSM’s candidate for the key mayor post in Skopje, Petre Silegov, is ahead of his VMRO-DPMNE rival, Koce Trajanovski, by over 28,000 votes after 76.5% of the votes were counted.
The SDSM believes its victory is a sign that citizens are supporting the new government’s effort to continue with reforms and break decisively with what the party believes was an oppressive regime under VMRO-DPMNE.
In the previous local election held in 2013, VMRO-DPMNE won 56 of the country’s 81 municipalities, while the Social Democrats won four. The others went to ethnic Albanian parties.
So far VMRO-DPMNE has not made an official comment on the election result, although its leader, ex-prime minister Nikola Gruevski, is reported by local media to have said the process was undemocratic and accused the SDSM of conducting the election under unfair conditions. However, the party has yet to discuss the outcome of the election, and the situation at the party’s headquarters was calm early on October 16.
Gruevski said earlier he would resign if his VMRO-DPMNE party loses the local elections.
Gruevski stepped down as prime minister in January 2016 opening the way for a snap general election, following the wiretapping scandal which revealed crime and corruption among top VMRO-DPMNE ranks. Gruevski and other party officials were involved in the scandal.
According to the police, there were some small irregularities during the latest election, but generally the process went smoothly.
Nineteen parties and coalitions as well as 64 independent candidates participated in the election, the sixth local vote in Macedonia since its independence in 1991. Over 1.8mn people were eligible to vote in the election.
Ballots were cast in 3,480 polling stations in 80 municipalities plus in the capital Skopje, as a separate municipal unit. The second round of voting, in constituencies where there is no clear winner, will be held on October 29.
Over 5,000 local and more than 370 foreign observers monitored the election.
The SDSM said ahead of the election it would guarantee a free and fair vote; a natural cause for concern in the country where the previous general elections have sparked accusations of vote rigging.
A couple of years of unrest, occasionally erupting into mass protests, shook Macedonia before the SDSM finally managed to dislodge VMRO-DPMNE from office and form a new government. The lengthy political crisis culminated in May in a storming of the parliament by an angry crowd of VMRO-DPMNE supporters.
Now the SDSM-led government is promising that will work to improve the life of the citizens, to speed up the stalled EU and Nato integration processes, and to solve the “name dispute” with Greece.
Greece has been blocking Macedonia's bid to join Nato and EU because of a dispute over the ex-Yugoslavian country’s name, but now relations between Skopje and Athens are improving, following several meetings between the foreign ministers of the two countries.