LONG READ: Voters prepare to punish North Macedonia's ruling SDSM for broken promises

LONG READ: Voters prepare to punish North Macedonia's ruling SDSM for broken promises
Shoppers at the Old Bazaar in Skopje, North Macedonia. Citizens say living standards and inflation are among the main issues affecting the country. / Valentina Dimitrievska
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje February 9, 2024

There were high hopes in North Macedonia when the SDSM came to power after the Colourful Revolution in 2017, promising change and a revival of the long-stalled EU accession process. Nearly seven years on, the SDSM's Dimitar Kovacevski has just stepped down as prime minister to make way for an interim government that will prepare the country for the May 8 parliamentary elections. 

Most recent polls show that voters are leaning towards the opposition conservative VMRO-DPMNE, as they are unhappy with the unfulfilled promises and the lack of achievements by the ruling Social Democrats. 

Disenchantment has set in primarily due to what is seen as the SDSM government’s compliant stance towards North Macedonia’s neighbours and its ethnic Albanian minority, which has boosted support for nationalist VMRO. They criticise the SDSM for complying with Greek demands, resulting in the change of the country's name to North Macedonia under the 2018 Prespa agreement, as part of the EU integration process. Further blame is placed on the government for accommodating contentious demands from Bulgaria, affecting the nation's identity. The Macedonian populace is disheartened by the perceived empowerment of the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) in the government, allowing it to place individuals without adequate education and experience in various public administration sectors. 

Chaotic situation 

On top of this, the SDSM’s focus on EU integration has led to the neglect of local issues.

Matters came to a head over the government’s failure to put a system in place for citizens to update their passports, ID cards and other documents with the new name of the country, as per the Prespa agreement.

The looming deadline is February 12, and failure to comply means those without updated passports or ID cards cannot travel abroad. Despite ample time for preparation, the government only initiated the process last year. With just over a million passports issued for a population of 1.8mn, and the diaspora, long queues persist at government offices.

Attempts to reduce the crowds by opening an emergency office to update documents without appointments only exacerbated the situation. Every day, hundreds of people wait for hours in front of the office in the centre of Skopje to file for new documents.

“There is complete chaos with new documents! I have a scheduled appointment in August to obtain a new passport. Until then, I won't be able to travel abroad," Rade, a resident of Skopje, told bne IntelliNews.

Constitutional changes 

On a political level — crucial to the country’s future though of less immediate importance to its citizens — the ruling Social Democrats and the DUI are struggling to secure support in the parliament for constitutional amendments that are vital for the country's progress towards the EU. 

The political landscape is currently caught up in uncertainty as the SDSM and DUI try to persuade VMRO-DPMNE to give its support to the changes, which need a two-thirds majority in parliament. Failure to do so has led to yet another holdup on the country’s slow path to EU accession. 

The latest political deadlock emerged following Bulgaria's conditional approval in July 2022 for North Macedonia to start negotiations with the EU, contingent upon constitutional changes which require the addition of ethnic Bulgarians as a constitutional nation. VMRO-DPMNE, however, rebuffed the idea, refusing to comply with what it deemed as Bulgarian directives.

Subsequently, VMRO-DPMNE has persistently called for early elections to address the ongoing political crisis, only to secure regular elections scheduled for May 2024.

The concern regarding the constitutional changes stems from the fear that Bulgaria may exploit the inclusion of a small community of Bulgarians (only 3,500 according to the latest census) in North Macedonia’s constitution. This could potentially lead to additional conditions and demands, which many fear could lead to "Bulgarisation" of the nation.

People stroll through the Old Bazaar area of North Macedonia's capital Skopje. Photo: Valentina Dimitrievska. 

Clash between two blocs

The impending elections will see a clash between the two major blocs, providing a litmus test for the country's EU orientation.

The SDSM, led by Kovacevski, who resigned as prime minister on January 25, is optimistic about securing victory, expecting support to implement a pro-European agenda.

However, polls results indicate that the patriotic VMRO-DPMNE is leading comfortably.

Public broadcaster MRT, in collaboration with the Institute for Political Research, recently released a survey indicating that in the first electoral unit encompassing the Skopje region, a pivotal indicator of voter sentiment, 20.6% expressed support for the opposition VMRO-DPMNE compared to just 10.4% for SDSM. Additionally, the survey reveals that DUI garners the support of 6.7% of respondents in this electoral unit.

Despite its leading position, there is uncertainty as to whether VMRO-DPMNE will secure a coalition partner to form a government tasked with navigating the challenges on the EU path.

If VMRO-DPMNE emerges victorious, the approach of its leader, Hristijan Mickoski, who refrains from articulating definitive positions on crucial matters, leaving citizens to speculate about the future, also remains uncertain.

Moreover, the party would face many of the same problems as the SDSM when it comes to advancing the country towards EU accession.

Addressing the explicit demand from Bulgaria, now formally integrated into EU requirements for constitutional changes and supported by French President Emmanuel Macron, poses a potential challenge for Mickoski and his party.

Domestic concerns overlooked

The SDSM unmistakably champions a pro-EU agenda and displays a readiness to amend the constitution. However, seemingly engrossed in a pro-Western agenda, the party appears to have overlooked domestic concerns. These go beyond the ongoing problems with updating documents. 

Aside from the EU agenda, the focus has shifted primarily towards populist gestures aimed at securing votes in the upcoming elections, including assistance to vulnerable groups amid the COVID-19 and energy crises, as well as raising pensions and salaries — an aspect not to be underestimated.

However, challenges persist in various sectors. Overall the economy is sluggish. Based on World Bank data, North Macedonia is projected to have the lowest GDP growth in the Western Balkans region in 2023, at 1.8%. By contrast, growth in Montenegro is expected at 4.8%.

According to the most recent poll, citizens consider crime, corruption, living standards, unemployment and inflation as their top priorities.

Despite North Macedonia's improvement by two places in the latest Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) released by Transparency International, the ongoing struggle against corruption remains a significant challenge. The primary obstacle in the country's anti-corruption endeavours is linked to amendments made to the Criminal Code.

“The decision to reduce penalties for the abuse of official positions and shorten deadlines for legal proceedings in suspected corruption cases is seen as favouring corrupt individuals, potentially resulting in the dismissal of around 200 cases, including those involving former high-level officials," the report said.

Public healthcare, burdened by bureaucratic hurdles, faces a dire situation with inadequate care for both staff and patients.

A recent Facebook post from a medical professional at the State Clinical Hospital in Skopje highlighted subpar treatment of staff. The post pointed to the challenges of surgery, often regarded as the "queen of medicine" and expressed disappointment in the seemingly inadequate care provided to medical staff, illustrated by a photo of a modest dinner with sarcastic commentary.

“Behold, a single high-calorie long roll measuring 8 centimetres, with an interactive prize game named ‘find the cheese’ inside,” the author of the post wrote. 

A partly build university campus in Skopje, one of many stalled projects in North Macedonia. Photo: Valentina Dimitrievska. 

Numerous infrastructure projects, particularly in motorway construction, are in a state of stagnation. Despite grand announcements, ongoing projects face indefinite delays. An obvious example is the Kicevo-Ohrid motorway, a vital route leading to North Macedonia’s largest tourist resort, which remains incomplete a decade after its initiation. The Chinese company Sinohydro is the contractor responsible for this project, launched when VMRO-DPMNE was in power.

The 24km motorway that should lead to Blace on the border with Kosovo is also a disputed and slowly realised project. Driving along the road, on one side you see construction machinery and excavations and it seems that the works are in full swing, but it’s looked the same for months.

Some of these were highlighted by MP Antonio Milososki of VMRO-DPMNE, a former foreign minister, who strongly criticised the government for the failure of infrastructure projects, issues in healthcare and widespread corruption on January 28, the day of the interim government's election. 

The Albanian question 

Milososki also accused the SDSM of granting too much influence to its coalition partner, the ethnic Albanian DUI, resulting in significant employment of ethnic Albanians and leaving Macedonians feeling like “hostages” in their own country, he claimed.

When Kovacevski stepped down, he was replaced by the parliament speaker, Talat Xhaferi, as interim prime minister for the 100 days until the election. The appointment of DUI leader Xhaferi was the first time North Macedonia has had an ethnic Albanian prime minister. 

It also broke with the customary practice of appointing the leader of the party with the best results in the last election (in this case the SDSM), and was a commitment made to the Albanian community by the former prime minister from the SDSM, Zoran Zaev.

Xhaferi was a commander of the ethnic Albanian rebels during the 2001 conflict with Macedonia’s army and police. He was appointed as the Macedonian defence minister in 2012, which stirred significant controversy in Macedonia at that time. 

VMRO-DPMNE criticised Xhaferi's initial public appearance as interim prime minister in a square in downtown Skopje, where he had his first coffee in his new position. Specifically the party expressed its disapproval of Xhaferi parking his government Mercedes in an area where vehicles are prohibited.

Comeback for VMRO-DPMNE? 

VMRO-DPMNE governed for a decade, from 2006 to 2016, during which time it became increasingly authoritarian under long-serving prime minister Nikola Gruevski. A dispute over the country’s name led to a rift with Greece, leading to a Greek veto on its progression towards EU accession. 

The party was finally ousted from power after the Colourful Revolution of 2016, triggered by then president Gjorge Ivanov's controversial decision to halt an investigation into Gruevski and numerous politicians implicated in a wiretapping scandal involving around 20,000 Macedonian officials and other figures.

Gruevski has been the subject of several corruption cases, and fled to Hungary, where he sought asylum, in 2018. Following Gruevski’s departure to Budapest, the party, now led by Mickoski, has been in opposition for eight years.

It came a close second in the July 2020 general election, taking 44 seats to the SDSM’s 46. That left the SDSM and DUI with only a narrow majority. VMRO-DPMNE went on to win the local elections in 2021, signaling public dissatisfaction with the SDSM. Despite that, VMRO-DPMNE has struggled to assert itself as a compelling political force with a clear vision during a critical period for EU integration.

But now voters want to punish the SDSM for policies that led thousands people, especially young ones, to seek better opportunities abroad during its tenure, and they are turning back to VMRO-DPMNE. 

Some even believe that the solution lies in the return of the ex-prime minister, Gruevski. Despite the corruption and scandals that implicated high-ranking officials from VMRO-DPMNE, brought to public attention through leaked wiretapped recordings revealed by Zaev in 2015, Gruevski’s influence persists in the country.

During Gruevski's era citizens often said that, despite instances of corruption, there were also substantial construction and development initiatives.

“In Gruevski's time, there was stealing, but also building,” citizens often say. One of his major projects was Skopje 2014, an €800mn revamp of the capital — a subject of huge controversy. 

Third force

Many Macedonians believe a third political force is needed, but the adoption of amendments to the electoral code enabling smaller parties to enter parliament has yet to materialise.

Given the current electoral framework, the prospects for smaller parties are slim. However, the left-oriented Left party (Levica) led by law professor Dimitar Apasiev has managed to garner support, especially among young people, securing two seats in parliament in the 2020 elections. Poll results indicate that disappointed voters are choosing Levica.

When questioned about their political preferences, two women and one man from Skopje contacted by bne IntelliNews expressed their intention to vote for Apasiev, citing disappointment with the lack of achievements by both major parties.

However, Apasiev's overtly pro-Russian stance and his abrasive style prove somewhat off-putting for broader support. 

In the Macedonian bloc, a nascent political entity called Znam (I know) led by Maksim Dimitrievski, mayor of Kumanovo and a former SDSM member who left due to disagreements, is making its presence felt. Recent polls suggest that the new party will enter the parliament in the next election.

Yet, historical patterns indicate that small political parties, particularly under the current model, face significant challenges breaking into the political arena, with voters traditionally favouring the two largest parties.

The DUI has represented the Albanian bloc in every government, as junior partner of first VMRO-DPMNE and now the SDSM, and this is anticipated to continue after the upcoming election.

However, it faces a challenge from the Albanian opposition in North Macedonia, which is forming a coalition comprising several parties that have received backing from Kosovo's ruling party, Vetevendosje, led by Albin Kurti. This situation sets a precedent of involving a foreign party in elections beyond its borders, generating public unease. DUI leader Ali Ahmeti has openly condemned this involvement from a foreign party.

As North Macedonia, an EU candidate country since 2005, stands at a crossroads, the May elections will shape its political landscape, impacting EU integration, addressing citizens' concerns and determining the nation's future direction.