North Macedonia’s opposition gears up for return to power

North Macedonia’s opposition gears up for return to power
Conservative opposition VMRO-DPMNE, led by Hristijan Mickoski, is poised for a comeback in the May 8 general election. / Valentina Dimitrievska
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje May 7, 2024

North Macedonia is gearing up for parliamentary and second-round presidential elections on May 8, which are set to shape the country’s future relationship with the EU.

A day before the vote, there’s a growing certainty that the opposition conservative VMRO-DPMNE, which opposes key constitutional amendments needed for EU integration, will reclaim power after being in opposition for seven years.

Dissatisfaction with the governance under the Social Democrats (SDSM), in coalition with the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), was evident during the first round of the presidential elections on April 24, when voters overwhelmingly supported the opposition, rallying behind Gordana Siljanovska Davkova, the VMRO-DPMNE candidate. Siljanovska Davkova held a commanding lead (40.2%) over current President Stevo Pendarovski of the SDSM (20%).

Despite probable support for Pendarovski from the DUI and other minority communities in the second round, VMRO-DPMNE's candidate holds a significant lead. This suggests that Pendarovski will struggle to overcome his rival's advantage.

In the upcoming general election, VMRO-DPMNE anticipates even broader backing, potentially securing around 53-54 seats in parliament. However, forming a coalition will be necessary to secure a majority of at least 61 MPs. VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski has openly expressed willingness to collaborate with the ethnic Albanian opposition alliance Vlen.

Room for surprises 

More than 1.8mn eligible voters are poised to participate in the elections across 3,360 polling stations, tasked with electing 120 members of parliament and the next country’s president.

Leading up to the elections, citizens were initially preoccupied with plans for the May Day and Orthodox Easter holidays, which fell just days before the elections. However, many people hastened back from their holidays to cast their votes.

The prevailing sentiment leans toward ousting the current government and providing an opportunity for the opposition. 

"I am disappointed with the SDSM. They gave too much power and key ministries to the DUI. I will vote for change,” Ivan, a citizen of Skopje, told bne IntelliNews.

While VMRO-DPMNE maintains a clear lead in the polls, there's room for surprises, especially with smaller parties like Znam (I Know) and Levica (Left). Many undecided voters could swing in their favour.

The first round of presidential voting saw Maksim Dimitrievski from the newly established Znam party, a splinter group from the SDSM, unexpectedly garnering over 80,000 votes. If this support carries over into the parliamentary election, Znam could secure approximately 10 seats, emerging as a viable third political force to challenge the dominant narratives of the SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE.

Maksim Dimitrievski, leader of Znam, has indicated his willingness to form a coalition with VMRO-DPMNE and the Albanian opposition. As mayor of Kumanovo, he already collaborates closely with both. 

Meanwhile, the opposition pro-Russian Levica (Left), currently with just two seats, is poised to expand its presence in parliament, particularly resonating with the younger demographic. However, its presidential candidate, Biljana Vankovska, espousing anti-Nato and anti-EU sentiments, fared poorly in the first round of the presidential election, finishing second to last among the seven contenders.

"I will support Levica," a young resident of Skopje stated. When asked by bne IntelliNews why he supports Levica, which is a pro-Russian and anti-EU/Nato party, he said: "What's the benefit of the EU? For years they have been lying and blackmailing us. If the EU doesn't want us, why should we want them?”

Overall, these might be the most surprising elections yet, as polls cannot predict how undecided voters and those disillusioned with the two largest parties will cast their votes.

EU integration efforts 

The big question ahead of the vote is what implications the election results will have for North Macedonia's EU integration efforts. 

SDSM leader and former prime minister Dimitar Kovacevski has consistently emphasised to voters that supporting his party means endorsing the ongoing process of EU integration, with the goal of securing membership by 2030. However, voters are growing weary of the current administration's unfulfilled promises and perceived neglect of citizen welfare.

Focused on meeting external demands, such as those set by Greece and Bulgaria as conditions for North Macedonia’s EU-Nato integration, and appeasing the DUI's political interests, the current leadership has been criticised for neglecting the concerns of the majority Macedonian population.

In addition to this, voters are unhappy about the heightened level of corruption, lack of adherence to the rule of law, widespread emigration in search of better opportunities abroad, and a general sense of dissatisfaction among the people.

VMRO-DPMNE also advocates for EU membership, but not at the expense of compromising the state's dignity. The party prioritises preserving national dignity and resisting bilateral pressures.

However, neither Siljanovska Davkova nor VMRO-DPMNE have outlined a definitive strategy for advancing the EU integration process within the existing negotiation framework.

During a face-off with Pendarovski, Siljanovska Davkova said she accepts the EU's negotiation framework but rejected the aspect that mandates constitutional changes to accommodate the Bulgarian minority. VMRO-DPMNE and ZNAM have also stipulated that constitutional amendments should only be considered after North Macedonia secures EU membership.

Meanwhile, in the current political landscape, support for the EU among citizens of North Macedonia has notably diminished. Only 31% of the populace believe that the country should maintain only a pro-EU and pro-Western stance. Additionally, just 34% of Macedonians express confidence in the EU's sincerity regarding its commitment to offering membership to Western Balkan nations, as reported by the International Republican Institute's (IRI) Western Balkans Regional Poll.

Proud again 

The slogan of VMRO-DPMNE and Gordana Siljanovska Davkova, whose name Gordana means “proud”, for the presidential elections was “Macedonia proud again”. 

This may have gone down well with the local population, but less so with North Macedonia’s neighbours, Bulgaria and Greece. 

The return of VMRO-DPMNE to power could complicate relations with Bulgaria and Greece, especially considering that North Macedonia, which changed its name to become a member of Nato and the EU, is constantly scrutinised by its southern neighbour, Greece.

Athens is particularly concerned about the narrative of VMRO-DPMNE, which refuses to acknowledge the prefix ‘North’, added in 2019 under the Prespa deal signed the previous year by the then SDSM-led government. The future of relations with Bulgaria, now at their lowest level after Sofia imposed a series of blockades and conditions on the path to the EU, is also unclear.