North Macedonia’s presidential election to test commitment to EU accession

North Macedonia’s presidential election to test commitment to EU accession
Opposition VMRO-DPMNE candidate Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova is expected to benefit from unhappiness with the current ruling coalition. / bne IntelliNews
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje April 22, 2024

Seven candidates will compete in the first round of the presidential elections in North Macedonia on April 24, with candidates from the ruling Social Democrats (SDSM) and the opposition conservative VMRO-DPMNE seen as the favourites to advance to the second round.

While many view the vote as a gauge of public sentiment regarding European integration processes, it is also expected to reflect dissatisfaction with the current policies of the ruling alliance of the SDSM and ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI).

Persistent crises 

Following the COVID-19 pandemic and energy crisis, North Macedonia is grappling with double-digit inflation and emigration of young people mostly to Croatia and Slovenia and other European countries, exacerbating labour shortages.

Critics blame the SDSM's partnership with the DUI for what they say is ineffectual governance, with many claiming there is excessive Albanian representation in state institutions and a sidelining of Macedonian interests.

Since 2017, the government has made painful concessions, such as changing the country’s name to ‘North Macedonia’ in line with Greek demands, in the interest of Nato and EU membership. However, while Nato membership was secured in 2020, Bulgaria has since made its own demands, effectively blackmailing the country to start membership negotiations with the EU.

Consequently, many citizens no longer desire full EU membership but instead advocate for a return to fundamental values, economic growth, democratic processes, the rule of law and the fight against corruption and nepotism. Many argue these ideals have been overlooked amid Skopje’s efforts to meet the conditions imposed by Bulgaria. 

Constitutional changes 

Just days before the first round of the election, the seven candidates engaged in a public debate on the broadcaster MTV on April 21, where they presented their plans and policies for a potential five-year term.

One of the key issues that came up during the debate was the constitutional changes required by Bulgaria, which the ruling coalition has been unable to get through parliament. 

Stevo Pendarovski, the incumbent president vying for a second term, said he views European integration as pivotal for North Macedonia. He said that progress in this direction hinges on meeting recommendations outlined in the negotiation framework, including the recognition of Bulgarians as a state-creating nation in the constitution.

He was backed up by the DUI’s candidate, Minister of Foreign Affairs Bujar Osmani, who affirmed that amending the constitution is essential and represents the final requirement for the country to achieve full membership in the EU. 

However, his rivals pointed out that Bulgarian officials hinted at imposing new conditions during chapter openings, suggesting that the cycle of demands could be perpetual.

Opposition VMRO-DPMNE candidate Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, a law professor, said that the EU negotiation framework isn't set in stone, and according to her, there's a chance for adjustments to be made to avoid amending the constitution.

However, a senior EU official visiting Bulgaria recently persuaded Bulgarian officials that there have been no alterations to the negotiating framework. They said that if North Macedonia aims to open the chapters, constitutional amendments will be required.

The candidate of the small opposition party, the Left, Biljana Vankovska, another law professor, also weighed in on the concessions made by SDSM-led governments to North Macedonia’s neighbours. She highlighted the detrimental impact of agreements inked by the former administration, such as the Prespa Agreement with Greece and the Good Neighbourhood Agreement with Bulgaria, and declared her intent to revoke these accords. When queried about potential isolation if elected as president due to her isolationist stance, she firmly stated that it wouldn't be the case at all.

Economic issues 

While the EU accession process and the current government’s record have been the main issues of the pre-election campaign period, presidential candidates have also sought to win support for other issues including attracting investment and job creation for young people. 

Maksim Dimitrievski, the leader of the newly formed political movement Znam, is a former SDSM official who recently departed from the party due to policy disagreements. He has adopted a moderate stance, pledging fair and principled governance devoid of party favouritism.

Dimitrievski spoke in the debate of his commitment to providing opportunities to talented young individuals regardless of their political affiliation or ethnicity. Drawing from his successful tenure as the mayor of Kumanovo, he expressed a desire to share his leadership experience if elected president.

The candidate of Grom party, Stevco Jakimovski, has garnered attention for his innovative proposal aimed at attracting foreign investment. Despite being recently added to the US blacklist, Jakimovski advocates for the development of a defence industry and encourages support for domestic companies to engage in the reconstruction efforts in Ukraine following the war.

The final candidate, ethnic Albanian opposition politician Arben Taravari, mayor of Gostivar, supports EU integration but demonstrates nationalist tendencies aligning with Kosovo and Albania, garnering support from Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti.

The second round of presidential elections are set for May 8, the same day as the voting for general elections.