Andrew MacDowall in Skopje -
Macedonia's ruling conservative nationalists look set to stay in power after topping the poll in the country's June 5 general election, despite an impressive resurgence by the opposition.
The VMRO-DPMNE, led by controversial Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, will take a projected 55 seats in the 123-member parliament having won 39% of the vote. The opposition Social Democrats (SDSM) are expected to take 42 seats on 34% of the vote. In what is effectively a separate contest between ethnic Albanian parties, the VMRO-DPMNE's sometime junior coalition partner, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) - led by former guerrillas - triumphed, taking a projected 15 seats on 10.2% of the vote.
The result reinforces the position of the youthful Gruevski, PM since 2006, as Macedonia's dominant political personality. However, the unexpectedly strong showing by the SDSM is a boost for the opposition following its call for an early poll after it launched a boycott of parliament in protest at Gruevski's alleged authoritarianism in January.Â In the last parliament, VMRO-DPMNE and its many smaller electoral partners, plus the DUI, held 81 seats.
Usually, the winning party will go into coalition with the largest Albanian parliamentary group, and VMRO-DPMNE is almost certain to reform its government with the DUI. While theoretically the SDSM could form a coalition with the DUI and its major ethnic Albanian challenger, the DPA, which took 5.9% of the vote and eight seats, SDSM leader Branko Crvenkovski has already conceded defeat.
The election was called a year earlier than legally necessary after bitter political disputes led to an opposition walk-out in January. The boycott was triggered by a police raid on leading Macedonian television station A1 in November, which led to the freezing of its accounts and those of a publishing house which issues three well-known newspapers, on the grounds of tax fraud. The media are all owned by Velija Ramkovski, a local tycoon - previously close to Gruevski but who fell out with the PM several years ago. The TV station and newspapers were critical of Gruevski, and the opposition accused him of effectively trying to censor them.Â
While the government insisted ar first that it had the majority and moral mandate to continue ruling, it agreed to early elections when the events took their toll on Macedonia's international image. Weeks of squabbling over changes to the electoral law then saw the date pushed back.Â
The win is the latest in a line of notable victories for Gruevski, who has confounded the Macedonian political pendulum which has previously seen incumbents turfed out after a single term. He won the 2006 and 2008 elections - in the latter poll, also called early, humiliating the Social Democrats - as well as sweeping the board at the 2009 local elections, and seeing the VMRO-DPMNE-backed candidate, Gjorge Ivanov, installed as president the same year.Â
The result indicates Gruevski still enjoys widespread support despite the distinctly fishy Ramkovski affair, though this support is clearly far from universal. One reason for his popularity is his relatively tough line on the "name dispute" with Greece. Athens has blocked Macedonia's Nato membership and EU accession process on the grounds that it objects to the title "Republic of Macedonia," claiming that it suggests Skopje has designs on the Greek region of Macedonia. Forecasting organisation Business Monitor International and a range of Greek commentators have stated that Gruevski's re-election would make a settlement in the near term unlikely.
However, the returning government is already under pressure to seek a resolution, with EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule tempering their praise for the "competitive, transparent and well-administered" election with a note on "the importance of the government taking steps to ensure good neighbourly relations" - diplomatic code which needs no translation.
Another point that remains to be seen is whether the incoming government will push on with stalled economic and administrative reforms demanded by the EU. Gruevski built up considerable goodwill internationally by making progress on these fronts in the early years of his first administration, but enthusiasm seems to have waned since the global recession knocked Macedonia's small, open economy sideways, and Athens put the brakes on accession.Â
Instead, attention has been focused on the rather grandiose Skopje 2014 project, which is either a grand plan to overhaul the slightly scruffy capital and get the economy moving or an expensive and nationalist-inspired vote-buying exercise which was accelerated in the run-up to the election, depending on whom one asks. Gruevski's return to power suggests that the project, which much to the annoyance of the Greeks includes a monument to Alexander the Great, enjoys support amongst the population either way. Â
Naughty, but nice
However, outside the country, accusations of authoritarianism remain. Election observers from the OSCE noted concerns about "blurring of the line between state and party", and analysts have warned that a reduced parliamentary presence is unlikely to reign in Gruevski's less consensual instincts.
The SDSM, for its part, was hoping to scrape a win against the odds, but will be very happy with its showing, a clear sign that it has recovered from its 2008-2009 low. A good performance by prime ministerial candidate Radmina Sekerinska and some of its rising stars suggests the party could face a future without without its talismanic leader, Branko Crvenkovski. Importantly, a significantly increased parliamentary presence should increase its ability to hold the government to account.
Meanwhile, dailyÂ newspaper Utrinski VesnikÂ labelled the campaign the nastiest in Macedonia's history, with several cases of vandalism against party offices noted, as well as perceived threats against individual candidates. Certainly, divisions between the opposition and government are bitter, but almost all the incidents have been minor. In fact, the election has been widely praised as free, fair, and peaceful. Most importantly, there was little sign of the ethnic violence that has scarred previous campaigns, and getting through both the vote and the post-election period without communal tensions boiling over would be a sign of Macedonia's progress since the 2001 conflict.Â
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