As Orthodox Easter approaches, the candidate for North Macedonia’s ruling coalition in the ongoing presidential election, Stevo Pendarovski, says he will pause from campaigning during the holidays. His rival in next weekend’s runoff, Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, posted pictures on Facebook of the eggs she had dyed, a tradition for the holiday. But despite their marking of the religious holiday, Pendarovski and Siljanovska-Davkova are locked in a desperate struggle for the votes of the country’s ethnic Albanian minority, who are likely to determine the outcome of the second round.
The two candidates were less than one percentage point apart in the first round of voting on April 21. North Macedonia is now heading to the run-off whose outcome is completely unpredictable, not least because the low turnout in the first round suggests that the required threshold of 40% may not be reached. In this case, the vote, which is of key importance for the country to advance on its EU path, will be invalidated.
Pendarovski, the pro-western candidate of the governing coalition, supported by 30 smaller political parties, won 42.84% of the votes on April 21. He was barely ahead of Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, the nominee of the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, who won 42.24%.
Blerim Reka, a candidate supported by ethnic Albanian opposition parties Besa and the Alliance of Albanians, won just 10.58% and was eliminated from the race.
The extremely narrow margin between the pro-government and opposition candidates showed diminished support for the governing SDSM party, and a kind of resurrection for the opposition scandal-hit and deeply divided VMRO-DPMNE.
The first round of the election was also marked by a turnout of just 41.8%, with turnout particularly low among ethnic Albanians, which make up around a quarter of the country’s population.
Now both Pendarovski and Siljanovska-Davkova are urging people to vote in the second round for the election to be successful.
“Mass voting means giving support to the concept of Nato and the EU, the country's progress and to a no return of the previous dark regime,” Pendarovski said during the campaign following the first round, referring to the decade-long rule of ex-prime minister Nikola Gruevski of VMRO-DPMNE, who was sentenced to two years in prison in a corruption case, but fled to Budapest where he was granted asylum.
Pendarovski punished for government failures
While the presidency is a mainly ceremonial post, the election is seen as the first major test for the governing Social Democrats following the Prespa name agreement. And it seems that voters have punished Pendarovski for the poor performance of the SDSM-led government.
A victory for Pendarovski is critical for the government as a validation of its pro-western approach of which the priorities are Nato and EU integration. Since SDSM leader Zoran Zaev’s government came to power in 2017, the country signed the Prespa deal with Greece, ending a lengthy dispute with Athens, which had blocked membership of the two organisations for years. As agreed under the deal, the country went on to change its name from Macedonia to North Macedonia.
While the deal faced strong opposition, led by VMRO-DPMNE, within the country, it has already opened the way for North Macedonia to become the 30th member of Nato. A decision from Brussels on the start of EU accession negotiations is expected this summer.
However, the poor results in the first round of the presidential election caused the governing SDSM party to re-think its policy on domestic issues. The coalition government has been really shaken and top officials openly admitted that there were many wrong moves such as the appointment of incompetent officials to leading positions. Voters are dissatisfied with the poor economic performance, nepotism, continued corruption and selective justice.
Specifically, many former officials and supporters of VMRO-DPMNE who stood trial for the violence in the parliament in 2017 were pardoned as a quid pro quo for supporting the government over the name deal with Greece, a move that angered many voters.
The ruling coalition’s leadership claim that resolving North Macedonia’s real economic problems was neglected as the authorities were focused on finding a solution to the long-standing name dispute with Greece.
The name question was at the heart of the election campaigns of the two main opponents: Pendarovski who supports the deal as a means for achieving Euro-Atlantic integration, and Siljanovska-Davkova, a harsh opponent of the deal.
Media in Greece wrote that the first round result caused concern in the ruling Syriza party, which regards the name deal as a great achievement. The Greek establishment now fears that if the opposition in North Macedonia wins in the second round or the threshold is not reached and the election is invalidated, that would hamper the implementation of the Prespa deal.
Responding to the first round result, Zaev promised that the cabinet will work hard to eliminate the weaknesses following the second round.
“We received the message, but do not punish the state for our weaknesses,” Zaev said in his address to the electorate after the results came out.
“Certainly there will be wipe outs. We will dismiss some officials as we have realised that we appointed people who do not have sufficient potential to some positions,” Zaev said.
In a first symbolic gesture following the announced “wipe out”, the actor Dragan Spasov-Dac, an SDSM supporter, gave Zaev a broom as a gift during a gathering with voters in Skopje to "wipe out those who fail” to perform well in the government and administration. Zaev took it with a smile.
The prime minister said he will propose a reshuffle of the cabinet which is likely to include the ministries of culture, environment, local self-government, as well as ministers from the economic sphere.
SDSM sources say that a dozen directors and managers of public companies who did not perform well will be sacked. There will be changes as well in the SDSM governing structures, at both central and local level.
On the other hand, the results prompted opposition VMRO-DPMNE to celebrate as it won in most of the municipalities in the country, mainly those with predominantly Macedonian populations, after suffering a great loss in the local elections in 2017.
The deeply divided opposition party, hit by corruption and crime scandals dating back to the autocratic regime under fugitive ex-PM Gruevski, now seems to be regaining support from voters.
VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski appeared greatly encouraged by the results which showed that his party, which supported Siljanovska-Davkova, gathered more votes alone than SDSM without the coalition.
VMRO-DPMNE made some calculations according to which if it was general election instead of a presidential vote on April 21, and the number of votes was translated into mandates, VMRO would win 53 MPs to the SDSM’s 41. The SDSM’s coalition partner the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) and Besa would get 13 each.
On the other hand, all parties saw a drop in support compared to the previous elections for mayors and city council members in 2017. In that election, VMRO-DPMNE won 335,000 votes, which has now dropped to 320,000. SDSM has the biggest drop, falling from 415,000 votes gained in 2017 to just 323,000.
“It is the best proof that citizens feel that the state is going backward. We are going down economically and democratically,” VMRO-DPMNE said in a party statement.
Albanian minority to cast the deciding votes
Who — if anyone — will be the ultimate winner after the second round depends mostly on the choice of the ethnic Albanian minority after Reka was, as expected, eliminated in the first round.
Pendarovski won 323,714 votes while Siljanovska-Davkova won 319,225. The big surprise in the election was Reka, who won nearly 80,000 votes, which he said was better than expected.
Both Pendarovski and Siljanovska-Davkova are hoping to win by attracting Reka’s supporters in the second round.
The direction of Pendarovski is firmly set, which is working on Nato and EU path.
What Siljanovska-Davkova plans to do is uncertain. Sometimes she says the Prespa deal is unconstitutional, but she has also said that she will respect it. Initially appearing as a harsh opponent of the name deal, she later softened her approach. As the campaign for the second round continues she began to mention the expected launch of EU accession talks, which she said is only possible if the rule of law is respected, promising she will work hard on that.
“I am continuing the race expecting votes of the undecided and those who may have drifted away from VMRO-DPMNE in the previous period, but now I see that they are coming back,” Siljanovska-Davkova said.
“The entire campaign of Siljanovska-Davkova is contradictory and full of fake and selective patriotism. Just like the party it represents,” the SDSM said.
However, the results show that the SDSM and Pendarovski have been damaged by the SDSM’s coalition with the DUI, which has been accused of crime and corruption in its ranks, and therefore delegitimised as a political factor among ethnic Albanians.
Overall, the turnout of the ethnic Albanians was very low, and unlike in the past, when they voted as a united body, they now seem deeply divided. Some voted for Reka, some for Pendarovski and many others boycotted the vote altogether. However, with Pendarovski and Siljanovska-Davkova now competing for those who either voted for Reka or didn’t vote at all in the first round, the choice of North Macedonia’s next president is in their hands.