Macedonia's four main political parties decided on August 31 to hold an early general election on December 11, finally agreeing that conditions for free and democratic elections are in place after months of wrangling. The agreement was achieved after a six-hour meeting.
The election date was set after a deal on overcoming the longstanding political crisis in the country was reached on July 20. However, it is still unclear if the election will lead to the stabilisation of the political situation.
The interim government which will hold power until the election, with ministers from the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), to be elected on September 2, news agency MIA reported, following the leaders' meeting.
Former prime minister and leader of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE Nikola Gruevski said before the parties reached an agreement on the election date that the governing party had accepted all preconditions set by the SDSM so that the opposition party could not insist on delaying the election again, broadcaster Nova TV said.
Previously two dates were set for early elections, April 24 and June 5, but the vote was delayed at the request of the SDSM and the international community, which claimed that conditions for a free vote had not been met. Conditions included clearing the voters’ registry and media reform.
The four main political parties who agreed on the election date are VMRO-DPMNE, its ethnic Albanian coalition partner the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), the SDSM and the opposition Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA).
Both VMRO-DPMNE and the SDSM have claimed they expect to win the election but according to the latest poll carried out in June, VMRO-DPMNE still leads the SDSM.
Meanwhile, the SDSM says it is ready to bring democratic changes in the society and accuses VMRO-DPMNE of autocratic governance. Its leader Zoran Zaev called the election a “referendum” on Macedonia’s future. “Citizens will choose whether they want to live in the impoverished and criminal state of Gruevski and his family, or a rich [country] and with rule of law for all citizens,” Zaev told a press conference, according to a party statement.
The news of the election date deal received a cautious welcome from international observers.
“[A]greement for Dec elections reached. Critical element: what parties, media, citizens do,” tweeted US Ambassador to Macedonia Jess Baily.
“We call on all political parties to strictly observe a credible electoral process, to allow all citizens a free choice and, after the elections, to build a government that tackles crucial reforms and works for the interests of all citizens,” said European Commission Vice-President Federica Mogherini and Commissioner Johannes Hahn in a joint statement. “In the same vein, all political forces must urgently reenergise their efforts to implement the rest of the political agreement, including the Urgent Reform Priorities.”
Steps on media reform, required under the agreement, were also taken at the August 31 meeting. Santa Argirova, an opposition candidate, was appointed editor-in-chief of the state-run broadcaster MTV.
Political parties also elected the fifth member of the ad-hoc committee to monitor compliance with media provisions of the electoral code from the ranks of the ethnic Albanian parties, Lulzim Haziri, after failing to meet several deadlines.
The crisis in Macedonia started in February 2015 when incriminating wiretapped conversations involving top officials were leaked by the SDSM. The Przino agreement signed later in 2015 appeared to resolve the crisis but rifts between government and opposition later reemerged.
The crisis deepened further in mid-April when President Gjorge Ivanov pardoned 56 people, including top politicians under criminal investigation, which sparked mass protests in the country. The pardons were later revoked, but protests continued until the new deal was reached in July.
SDSM has been in opposition since 2006, losing early elections in 2008, 2011 and 2014. The party has repeatedly blamed the governing party for organising unfair elections.
According to the latest survey published in June by Brima Gallup, VMRO-DPMNE still leads the SDSM with 27.1% support against 15.8%.
On August 19, Fitch Ratings downgraded Macedonia's ratings to 'BB' from 'BB+', due to the unresolved political crisis and its consequences for the economy.
Fitch noted that the political crisis has started to adversely affect the economy as the country’s real GDP growth slowed sharply to 2% y/y in Q1 from 3.7% in 2015, dragged down by a large contraction in investment activity, likely affected by the uncertain political environment.