A few days before Macedonia’s critical December 11 election, the ambience in the capital is more festive than political, with Christmas decorations outshining the billboards of the rival VMRO-DPMNE and Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM).
Both parties have made big promises ahead of the snap election, called as part of the process to overcome the country’s deep political crisis. However, most people in Macedonia do not expect the upcoming election to solve the crisis, and nor do they believe in the inflated pre-election promises from the main parties.
The crisis erupted after recorded conversations involving senior government officials were disclosed by Zoran Zaev, leader of the opposition SDSM, in early 2015. The wiretapping scandal revealed high-level corruption, and despite the signing of the Przino agreement in mid 2015 the crisis later deepened with almost daily opposition protests in the first half of this year. However, the situation has calmed down recently after the decision of the four major political parties to hold a snap election on December 11.
In the campaign, which started on November 21, the governing conservative VMRO-DPMNE has been promising the construction of new roads and other infrastructure projects, and investments in the health and education systems and in agriculture. The party sees the election as a referendum on Macedonia as a unitary state. VMRO-DPMNE has accused Zaev of advocating the introduction of the Albanian language across Macedonia and pushing the idea for making the country a federal state - claims that Zaev has denied.
Meanwhile, the SDSM promises firstly to restore democracy in the country and faith in its institutions, as well as pledging financial assistance to small and mid-sized companies. Both parties, which are campaigning hard, pledge the creation of new jobs, higher salaries and better living standards.
However, after two years of political turmoil, many Macedonians remain unconvinced by these promises. “I am totally disappointed, broken and don’t believe in politics anymore because of the undelivered promises by any party so far,” a middle-age woman walking through Skopje’s streets with a white-paper banner asking for financial aid told bne IntelliNews.
“I believe neither in VMRO-DPMNE nor in SDSM. Their promises are unreal. There is no strong third political force which should come to power,” Zoran, a taxi driver from Skopje, told bne IntelliNews.
Zoran is disappointed that all employment goes through the governing party, confessing that his daughter was employed with the help of VMRO-DPMNE as this was the only way for her to get a job. “That’s the reality. At least VMRO-DPMNE has done something for the country even though many wrongdoings can be ascribed to it,” he said.
Despite the scandals, polls show the VMRO-DPMNE led by former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who is seen as an authoritarian leader, is still ahead of the SDSM. However, in the latest survey conducted by the Rejting agency, the margin is only 1.4 percentage points.
Among ethnic Albanian voters, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), VMRO-DPMNE’s junior coalition partner, has kept its lead. The latest poll shows that the newly-established Besa party could become the second biggest ethnic Albanian party, pushing the opposition Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) into third place. There are also many ethnic Albanians who will opt for Zaev as they have been disappointed by the DUI and DPA in the past. A recent poll conducted by Telma TV suggested that Zaev will be supported by 6% of ethnic Albanians.
8.5% of those surveyed were undecided, while 12% refused to say for whom they would vote, 24vesti reported. Unemployment, high costs of living, corruption and emigration are the biggest problems in the country, according to the poll.
“I hope that undecided voters will be decisive for the election outcome in favour of the opposition. Democracy must be restored,” said a teacher from Skopje who declined to be named.
However, other Skopje residents are less optimistic that the elections will result in any changes. A street bookseller in downtown Skopje said he thought that small parties should have more representatives in the parliament, but that they are incapable of doing anything without being in coalition with the big players. “Nothing will be changed following the election,” he said.
“Probably VMRO-DPMNE will win the election while SDSM will improve its election results compared with previous elections. However the outcome won’t change the current situation, only minor changes are possible,” Maja, a 22-year student, told bne IntelliNews.
Meanwhile, another resident said he wanted to keep things as they were. “I don’t believe that the election will solve the crisis. Despite everything, VMRO-DPMNE should stay on power. Everything should stay as it is,” Amdi from Skopje said, adding he does not believe in election promises of higher wages and a better life.
Fighting it out on TV
One problem in the run up to the election has been the lack of debates between the main parties, which means there has not been an opportunity to test and probe the claims made by politicians in their campaigns.
Pre-election TV duels between VMRO-DPMNE and SDSM candidates are rare. Zaev has challenged Gruevski to a TV debate, but this never took place. In fact, Gruevski, who resigned as prime minister early this year, has not taken part in a TV duel with any opposition politician since he first took office 10 years ago.
There are also difficulties finding a forum for debate that both parties agree on. VMRO-DPMNE is boycotting pro-opposition TV Telma, while SDSM candidates have rejected invitations sent by TV Nova, claiming the format of the shows has not been specifically defined. Meanwhile, Sitel, Kanal 5 and TV Alfa, which are all under government-control, do not broadcast political debates as they claim some of the invited guests always fail to turn up.
Instead, VMRO-DPMNE officials say that the party’s priority is for their candidates to present themselves in the campaign across the country rather in televised debates.
Ahead of the December 11 election, there has only been one TV debate in which candidates for the two main parties, Stevo Pendarovski from SDSM and Nikola Poposki from VMRO-DPMNE, took part alongside officials from the ethnic Albanian parties.
In the tetchy debate broadcast on Alsat M on November 29, Pendarovski and Poposki traded accusations over the crisis and Macedonia’s stalled EU integration process.
Pendarovski said that VMRO-DPMNE is to blame for the lack of progress on EU integration, because of its control over the media and its disregard for human rights in the country. On the other hand, Poposki claimed that Macedonia had made “huge progress” on its EU path since 2009, but cannot go further due to Greek obstructions. “Furthermore, the EU is hit by a crisis itself like Brexit and the migrant crisis, which contributes to delaying the enlargement process further,” Poposki explained.
What the TV debates have shown is that the smaller parties have more creative ideas, but their chances of gaining a considerable number of seats in the parliament are slim due to the unfavorable election model and the habit of most people of voting for one of the main players in either the Macedonian of the ethnic Albanian political blocks. The current proportional model, established in 2002, divides Macedonia into six constituencies and favours the big parties. Each constituency elects 20 MPs plus three MPs from the diaspora.
Ethnic tensions resurface
However, the debates between representatives of the smaller parties also opened up some of the wounds from the ethnic conflict between Macedonians and Albanians 15 years ago. Over 100 Macedonian members of the security forces were killed during the conflict, mainly ambushed by rebels. An unspecified number of UCK fighters also died in the conflict, which ended with the 2001 Ohrid Agreement that gave ethnic Albanians more rights.
In a November 30 debate broadcast by Telma, the DUI’s Artan Grubi said the party will press for the usage of Albanian language, saying that all Macedonians should speak Albanian as well. Almost all ethnic Albanian parties share this opinion.
“It’s fine for people to know more languages, but I’ll keep the right to decide what language to learn,” riposted Vesna Stojmenovska of the Coalition for Changes and Justice.
Controversially, Grubi also boasted about the benefits of the Ohrid agreement for former National Liberation Army (UCK) fighters. Grubi revealed that all former rebels are now employed by state institutions, while commanders have been given ministerial positions. “Some of them still stay at home but receive their salaries because they have not been assigned to specific positions in the administration,” he said shamelessly. This is a sore point for Macedonians who have failed to get jobs in the public administration, as they are reserved for ethnic Albanians.
In another debate, DPA leader Menduh Thaci accused the DUI of using Muslim women, who traditionally wear veils and long outfits, to commit voter fraud. “Women would change clothes and vote on several different locations,” Thaci claimed.
The international community, which mediated in Macedonia enabling the four main parties to reach the Przino Agreement in 2015, has called for a fair and democratic vote.
VMRO-DPMNE has been blamed for using many tactics to influence voters through pressure on the public administration. The party also introduced populist measures that benefit pensioners, farmers, students and other vulnerable categories, to attract more voters.
Zaev’s “bombs” showed that interior ministry was used as the party’s headquarters for coordination of the election activities in previous elections, but also pointed out to other major election irregularities. The Special Prosecution Office, set as part of the Przino agreement, is now investigating these irregularities. For the elections to help overcome the crisis, they will need to be visibly free and fair, as evidence of rigging would only serve to inflame tensions again.