Andrew MacDowall in Belgrade -
Macedonia’s conservative ruling party has won a double election victory, giving it a mandate to continue its economically liberal policies that have given the country arguably the strongest business climate in Southeast Europe.
But the VMRO-DPMNE of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski will almost certainly need to seek a coalition partner to form a parliamentary majority, which would entail hard choices between unpalatable options. And the opposition has rejected the result, while a fourth consecutive term for Gruevski will intensify concerns in some quarters about the “Putinisation” of Macedonia.
Initial results from the April 27 snap general election, with 80% of the ballot papers counted, showed the VMRO-DPMNE on 43.3%, followed by the main opposition Social Democrats on 23.2%, Deutsche Welle reported. Two ethnic Albanian parties, the DUI and DPA, on 15.5% and 6.8%, respectively.
In a concurrent second-round presidential election, incumbent Gjorge Ivanov of the VMRO-DPMNE – a close ally of Gruevski’s – led with 57% of the votes, while Stevo Pendarovksi of the opposition Social Democrats (SDSM) took 40%. Ivanov had already taken over 50% in the first round, but a second round was constitutionally necessary due to a turnout of less than 50%.
"I can say that our fatherland is in safe hands. Nikola Gruevski remains prime minister and I can also say...that Gjorge Ivanov remains president," senior VMRO-DPMNE official Vlatko Gjorcev said.
But SDSM leader Zoran Zaev accused the VMRO-DPMNE of buying votes and "abusing the entire state system", and called for a technocratic government to be put in place to re-run the polls. This is highly unlikely to happen.
Only game in town
A stronger showing by the SDSM and Pendarovski, a widely-respected and pragmatic former foreign policy advisor to two Macedonian presidents, might have indicated that the opposition was shaking off years of torpor and could mount a serious challenge to Gruevski. But the results show that the VMRO-DPMNE remains by a large margin the most powerful force in Macedonian politics, and the still-youthful Gruevski its foremost figure. A hoped-for surge of support for Pendarovski from the Albanian community in the second round (after many boycotted the first) did not materialise.
VMRO-DPMNE will take 61 seats in the 123-seat parliament, just shy of an absolute majority, projections published by Deutsche Presse-Agentur suggested.
SDSM would take just over half this, 34 seats, with the DUI, which has long been a coalition partner of the VMRO-DPMNE, on 19. The more hardline Albanian-nationalist DPA would take seven seats, and GROM, a centrist outfit headed by a former SDSM mayor; and another Albanian party, just one each. The SDSM, which has been accused of running a negative campaign, lost ground from the last election that was in 2011.
The result is an endorsement of Gruevski and his policies, which combine an emphasis on economic growth and investment with a dash of nationalist conservatism. It is also yet another setback for the SDSM, which looks directionless, and the rest of the opposition. “Nikola Gruevski has won continually since 2006 because he has identified his electorate, targeted it consistently, and developed a specific, issues-based political platform for the VMRO-DPMNE,” Chris Deliso, a Skopje-based director of Balkanalysis.com, tells bne. “In short, voters know what they're getting with the party, whereas no one quite knows what the opposition stands for; in the recent campaign, a decision was made to emphasize Mr Gruevski's alleged failings, rather than to elucidate a specific and positive contrary agenda.”
However, Gruevski will still need need a coalition partner. The most likely candidate is the DUI, but this would take some swallowing of pride and compromise on both sides. The Albanian party triggered the early election by withdrawing from the ruling coalition over the nomination of Ivanov as presidential candidate on the grounds that he is not “consensual”, and more broadly on the issue of the system of electing the president. The DUI argues that the current direct election guarantees an ethnic-Macedonian head of state, effectively shutting Albanians out of the role (given the current heavily ethnically-defined party politics of Macedonia, it is not incorrect). However, bne understands that the DUI’s bid to find a compromise candidate for the election descended into high farce, boxing it into a corner and leaving a boycott the only option
A source close to the DUI leadership told bne that the split with VMRO-DPMNE was possibly a pre-electoral gambit designed to generate more votes for both parties. If so, this strategy appears to have paid off. Indeed, the incumbents benefited considerably more than the opposition from the snap poll.
Given the past working relationship, the DUI may be the least-worst option, particularly as the DPA’s Albanian nationalism is even more at odds with VMRO-DPMNE’s stance. How much compromise there will be, and on which issues, remains to be seen.
Thus the way is clear for at least four more years of Gruevski, who can justly point to a number of achievements. “VMRO-DPMNE's campaign once again highlighted economic development and the need to attract foreign investors, so regardless of coalition partner the government's economy-first focus will continue,” says Deliso.
The economy grew by 3.1% last year, and will accelerate to 3.2% in 2014 and 3.5% in 2015, according to the IMF. While this is admittedly from a low base – this being one of Europe’s poorest countries – perhaps the most singular achievement of recent governments has been the improvement in the investment environment. The World Bank’s Doing Business 2014 report ranks ex-Communist Macedonia as 25th in the world, up from 36th in 2013. It comes seventh for the ease of starting a business, and third for access to credit. Corporate and personal taxes are a flat 10%, and a raft of incentives are available for investors, as prominent advertisements kept reminding the international business community in the years before the crisis.
For a landlocked country with few natural resources, but a strategic position at the heart of the Balkans, such things matter. Macedonia has become a base for automotive component manufacturers in particular.
In foreign policy, Gruevski is likely to keep lobbying for the start of formal EU accession talks, having been an official candidate for nine years, as well as Nato membership. However, both have been repeatedly blocked by Greece, which objects to Macedonia’s name on the grounds that it implies a territorial claim on its own region of Macedonia. As in the past, the issue is likely to hinge on whether the international community can force Greece into backing down, or come up with some other compromise.
More concerning for many observers is the sense of centralisation of power in Gruevski’s hands, which has even been compared to “Putinisation” – a charge also levelled at Hungary’s Victor Orban and Romania’s Victor Ponta. While this may be far-fetched, there are serious concerns about media freedom, due to factors including the state’s advertising power, political links of major media owners, the closure of independent newspapers, and an expansion of government control over broadcasting. Freedom House ranks Macedonia as only “partly free”, and last year said that the country had “suffered a significant deterioration since 2006” on the organisation’s “democracy score”. Index on Censorship refers to Macedonia as “the only country in south-east Europe with imprisoned journalists”.
In this context, the opposition’s failure to gain traction takes on a somewhat more sinister hue. It is worth noting that low turnouts indicate that enthusiasm for Gruevski and his government is far from universal. Nonetheless, he seems set to remain the only game in town for some years to come.
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