Political earthquake follows local elections in North Macedonia

Political earthquake follows local elections in North Macedonia
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje November 8, 2021

The poor results of the ruling Social Democrats in the recent local elections in North Macedonia triggered political turmoil in the country when Prime Minister Zoran Zaev immediately announced his resignation. 

The SDSM’s performance in the local elections, where it won only 18 mayor positions out of the total of 81, can be considered as a defeat for the EU’s enlargement policy and its undelivered promises to the Western Balkans.

Everything is unclear right now, as Zaev has not yet officially submitted his resignation to the parliament, even though he is expected to do so in the course of this week.

On October 31, following the second round of the local vote, Zaev also said he is resigning as a leader of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), which raises the question of whether his successor will be capable of consolidating the party following the election defeat.

Many options are at play now – the SDSM continuing to lead the government, a new parliamentary majority led by the opposition VMRO-DPMNE or immediate snap elections, but according to analysts the most probable and desirable option is for early elections to be held next spring.

SDSM defeated

“The resignation was unexpected. The key question is whether Zaev’s successor is able to rekindle the reforms in [North] Macedonia, which many see as having stalled. Of course the blocked EU prospects are part of the story, but there are plenty of domestic reasons for the loss and here the successor has to tackle the reformist agenda,” Florian Bieber, director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, told bne IntelliNews by email. 

47-year-old Zaev, former businessman and mayor of Strumica, has led the SDSM since 2013 after the resignation of Branko Crvenkovski, the country’s former prime minister and president.

After suffering a defeat in the general election in 2014, Zaev revealed illegal wiretaps detailing top-level corruption in VMRO-DPMNE’s ranks, obtained from wiretapped conversations that were leaked to the SDSM, which triggered the Colourful Revolution. Following the snap election in 2016, the SDSM came to power in coalition with the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) in May 2017.

Under Zaev’s leadership, Macedonia changed its name to North Macedonia under the Prespa name deal with Greece, which enabled the country to become a Nato member in March 2020, but it failed to launch EU accession talks due to the unexpected Bulgarian veto last year.

Commenting on the SDSM's poor results, Aleksandar Krzalovski, executive director at Macedonian Center for International Cooperation (MCIC), told bne IntelliNews that there are probably many reasons for the ruling party’s defeat, but the main cause is unfulfilled promises.

"One of the main such expectations, it seems to me, is the stagnation of the EU integration process. Although it is more the fault of the EU, the government was punished in this case for the wrong assessment that we won’t be hanging on [for a decision on the start of EU accession talks] and of course the overpaid price for the change of the country's name,” Krzalovski said, referring to the 2018 Prespa agreement with Greece. 

The agreement changed the name of the country to North Macedonia with the aim of unblocking the EU and Nato integration processes. The country became a Nato member in March 2020, but Bulgaria vetoed the start of EU accession talks at the end of last year over history and language issues.

For Krzalovski, another of the most important promises that was not delivered by the ruling party was dealing with corruption cases dating from the previous VMRO-DPMNE government, which ruled for more than 10 years.

“When coming to power, SDSM promised to return allegedly stolen state money of between €0.5bn and €5bn (according to the party’s estimations), but only slightly less than €1mn has been returned so far,” Krzalovski said.

The third reason, according to Krzalovski, is the continuation of many of VMRO-DPMNE’s practices instead of radically different actions. These include the further partisanship of the institutions, lack of true reforms and ‘capture’ of the judiciary.

“For me the most obvious is the enormous over-indebtedness as in the last four years they almost doubled the already large debt run up by the previous government in a ten-year period,” Krzalovski added.

He also noted that one of the SDSM’s significant mistakes was made between the two rounds of the local elections, when it criticised Danela Arsovska, the candidate for Skopje mayor backed by VMRO-DPMNE, for having a Bulgarian passport.

In the second round of the local elections Arsovska defeated Petre Silegov from the SDSM, who was running for a second mandate, with more than 28,000 votes.

“There are probably many other reasons why a huge number of SDSM supporters decided not to vote for them this time, including bad personnel solutions as well as punishing the good but ‘disobedient’ members, instead of the bad but loyal party members, as well as unreasonable decisions to propose new candidates where they already had successful mayors," according to Krzalovski.

What happens next?

Bieber told bne IntelliNews he believes that the current coalition will stay in power.

“It has a parliamentary majority and despite the PM’s resignation there is no reason for early elections. It has a clear mandate and by the time the next elections are due, the circumstances can change, including a breakthrough with Bulgaria. The problem is that the political alternative is not offering a viable option, based on its nationalism and support for Orban-style authoritarianism,” Bieber said.

The leader of VMRO-DPMNE, Hristijan Mickoski, announced on November 6 that he secured a majority in the parliament to overthrow the government led by Social Democrats. Mickoski said that his party collected 61 signatures for a new majority in the 120-seat parliament, joining forces with several small ethnic Albanian political parties and Levica (the Left). 

Mickoski set a deadline for Zaev to submit his resignation in the parliament by 2.30pm on November 8 otherwise his party will file a no-confidence motion against the government. But if the efforts to form a new government fail then a snap election would be an option.

In the meantime, however, one of the members of a small ethnic Albanian party said he would withdraw his signature supporting the opposition coalition to overthrow the government, so everything is still uncertain.

If VMRO-DPMNE does manage to establish a majority, it would be a slim and unstable one because the ethnic Albanian parties are in total disagreement with Levica, and decided to join forces only to overthrow the Zaev government.

Before Mickoski’s new announcement that he had secured a majority, Krzalovski said he believed it was more likely that the SDSM would continue to govern, although snap elections in the spring, more specifically between April and June, would be virtually inevitable.

“Until then, I do not expect special political turbulence and crises especially if a date for new elections is agreed from now on, but also no significant reform efforts,” Krzalovski said.

According to him, reforms would be reduced to managing the existing crises, such as dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, the issue with Bulgaria, the energy crisis and economic issues.

On the other hand, Vladimir Bozinovski, analyst and programme director of the Institute for Political Studies (IPIS) told bne IntelliNews that snap elections are necessary due to the distribution of forces in the parliament.

“[B]ut of course they should not be held immediately, because there are two key issues that must be overcome first — the expected fifth wave of coronacrisis as well as energy and economic crisis,” Bozinovski said.

Should the vote be called soon, the whole political establishment would be engaged in preparing for the elections, he pointed out, so it would be better for elections to be held only in May-June next year.

Political turmoil and EU integration

Bozinovski does not expect any government to resolve the issue with Bulgaria by the end of the year as he said the problem is imposed by Bulgaria as Sofia is always changing its conditions towards Skopje.

“We see what are the demands delivered by Bulgaria and they themselves do not know what they are asking for. There is no political government in Bulgaria, they have elections [in November] and it is not known what will happen after those elections, and there is no time until December to achieve anything,” Bozinovski said.

“New conditions are also being delivered such as the inclusion of the Bulgarian minority in the Constitution,” Bozinovski said. He pointed out that for the constitution to be changed, the parliament needs a two-thirds majority, which is 80 MPs. 

“I do not expect any progress because we do not know with whom we will negotiate or what the conditions are and nor do they themselves [Bulgaria] know what they are looking for. There is total disagreement here. What is clear is that Bulgaria is blocking Macedonia,” Bozinovski said.

In terms of how political turmoil will reflect on the EU integration process, Bieber said he does not see any changes, as he expects the current government to stay in power.

“It puts it into a weaker position and will certainly be less willing to make compromises with Bulgaria that would make it look weak. The key question is the outcome of the next Bulgarian elections and whether there will be a breakthrough. If Bulgaria drops its veto, there is an opportunity for the dynamics in the country to change,” Bieber said.