2017 local election: A vote on the future of the Republic of Macedonia

The International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) in Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses events in the Middle East and the Balkans. In view of the sixth local election in the Republic of Macedonia scheduled for 15 October 2017, IFIMES has prepared an analysis of the current political situation in this country. The most relevant and interesting sections from the analysis entitled “2017 local election: A vote on the future of the Republic of Macedonia“ are given below.

2017 local election:


A vote on the future of the Republic of Macedonia


On 15 October 2017 the sixth election will be held in the Republic of Macedonia since the country proclaimed independence. The runoff will take place on 29 October 2017.


The local election will represent a chance to continue the process of changes that started with the formation of the new coalition government on 31 May 2017 led by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev (SDSM).


There are 1,814,644 Macedonian citizens with the right to vote at the upcoming local election. In the first round, the mayors and members of councils of 80 municipalities and the capital city of Skopje will be elected. Nineteen parties and coalitions submitted lists of candidates for mayors and council members, along with 64 independent candidates and lists submitted by citizen groups. The local election will be carried out at 3,480 polling stations and will be observed by over 300 OSCE/ODIHR mission staff.


An unusual local election


The upcoming local election in the Republic of Macedonia will be unusual for both sides of the political spectrum (SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE), since it will represent the political battle between democracy and authoritarianism, or between the civil and/or ethnic (and even nationalistic and exclusory) character of Macedonia. Despite the local nature of election, it will decide between the West and the East although nominally everybody supports the West. This will not be a usual local election but rather a continuation of parliamentary election and political changes that started on 11 December 2016 when Nikola Gruevski's (VMRO-DPMNE) regime was overthrown and the new leading coalition of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia(SDSM), the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI-BDI) and the Alliance of Albanians (DR-ADP, UNITETI, NDP) was established.


As many as 57 out of 80 municipalities in Macedonia are still run by the previous regime (VMRO-DPMNE) which has been in power there for 12 consecutive years. This phenomenon could be described as „municipalities stolen from the citizens“. After the last parliamentary election and the formation of the new government, the process of liberating the „stolen state“ of Macedonia has begun and should be continued at the local level. Nevertheless, care should be taken not to replace the stolen state with the new stolen state.


The upcoming local election will not only bring new mayors and municipal/city council members, but also determine the future of the Republic of Macedonia. It will decide whether Macedonia will continue its progress and reform into a successful state with numerous international friends or remain an isolated and divided country.


Without free media there are no free citizens


The key issues for the local election include the electoral list, media regulation and media coverage, updating the election list and ensuring undisturbed and transparent work of the State Electoral Commission (DIK). Special attention should be paid to media regulation, especially to the Macedonian Radio and Television (MRT) public broadcaster which still operates as it did during Gruevski's and VMRO-DPMNE regime instead of being transformed into a modern public service that works in the interests of the public and the citizens. Without free media there can be no free citizens. The public broadcaster should be independent in order to be able to control the state authority.


The fall of Gruevski's regime and VMRO-DPMNE represents a sharp stab at crime, corruption, nepotism and unfree media in Macedonia.


The issue of media regulation will remain a future challenge for Macedonian society where most of the media ignore their social mission and follow the orders of certain political parties and/or authorities. There are very few television duels between candidates from the largest political parties, since they mostly appear in the media that they find to be close to their political orientation.


„De-Gruevisation“  of Macedonia is an inevitable process


DeGruevisation“ of Macedonia represents not only dealing with the reasons and consequences of Gruevski’s regime but also the long-term process of dismantling the regime that has been present for so many years in every segment of Macedonian state and society. Gruevski and members of his regime cannot avoid the responsibility and court prosecution for everything that was done during the twelve years of their rule. Gruevski's scenario is to use the upcoming local election to stage a crisis and achieve another early parliamentary election in order to remain in politics.


Gruevski is well aware that he will lose the local election and has already announced that his VMRO-DPMNE would measure success by the number of municipalities where they win, ignoring the fact that the victory has a much bigger impact in large towns than in rural municipalities.


Moreover, Gruevski will have to face severe charges from the Special Prosecution Office (SJO) as well as the increasing revolt from within VMRO-DPMNE whose members are more and more eager to see former Macedonian Minister of Foreign Affairs Antonio Milošoski take over the presidency of the party. A part of VMRO-DPMNE members and high officials have already started to distance themselves from the crimes that were committed by the regime, which opens the possibility for establishing a new political party.


Election race for the personality and the programme


The upcoming local election in the Republic of Macedonia represents a new case of confrontation between the two opposing political blocks: SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE. The specifics of this local election lies in the fact that the key role will be played by the personalities presented as candidates by political parties and independent lists, and by their programmes.


The election campaign has given the impression that the Prime Minister and leader of social democrats Zoran Zaev pays more attention to the local themes while the opposition VMRO-DPMNE leader Nikola Gruevski brings up the issues that are usual for parliamentary elections. For almost 12 years Zaev was the mayor of Strumica, one of the most successful municipalities in the region, so he is very familiar with the local problems and well aware what consequences the (lack of) cooperation between the central government and local communities may have. As the mayor from the opposition SDSM party, he experienced such lack of readiness from the central government to cooperate with the municipality of Strumica.  He therefore stresses the importance of cooperation and support from the central government to the newly elected mayors in resolving the accumulated local problems.


Gruevski has missed the main topic of the local election campaign: he criticizes the incumbent government that has only been in power for four months and boasts of his achievements during his long years in power ignoring all the damages he caused to the citizens and the Republic of Macedonia. He criticizes the agreement on neighbourhood cooperation between Macedonia and Bulgaria, the migrants strategy and the economic policy, and he holds debates on migrants, makes promises about infrastructure and ecology projects, thousands of new jobs and better living standard instead of dealing with local topics and problems faced by the citizens in their local environment on a daily basis. The whole campaign pursued by VMRO-DPMNE is actually focused on saving Nikola Gruevski.


Nevertheless, the incumbent Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has reminded the citizens that this is a local election and therefore it should deal with the daily issues of Macedonian citizens. In most of his public speeches he talks about the ecology, construction of gas lines and district heating in municipalities, and provision of clean drinking water and clean air especially in towns that have been suffering pollution for years.

At last parliamentary election Ali Ahmeti (DUI) lost almost 70,000 votes among the Albanian voters in comparison with the previous election, although he still has the highest number of seats among all Albanian parties in the Macedonian Parliament (Sobranie). The position of DUI is seriously jeopardised by the new Albanian parties Besa and Alliance of Albanians which have presented some renowned and reputable candidates for mayors in towns that are of key importance for Albanians: Tetovo, Gostivar and Struga.


The coalition gathered around SDSM encompasses 22 political subjects and its election lists include about 40% of civil society representatives from all ethnic communities in the Republic of Macedonia (Macedonians, Albanians, Serb, Turks, Vlachs, Roma, Bosniaks etc.), which gives it an even stronger impetus. 


The IFIMES International Institute believes that the upcoming local election in the Republic of Macedonia is of paramount importance for the future of Macedonia as it may trigger the continuation of positive political processes and changes that started with early parliamentary election on 11 December 2016. The victory of SDSM and its coalition would lead to accelerated continuation of the judicial reform and prosecution of the (ir)responsible individuals who violated the law during the last 12 years when they were in power. The reverse situation would cause the blocking of further democratic processes and cause new obstructions that would bring Macedonia back to the period before Gruevski's regime was overthrown. The local communities are devastated after their management has not changed for the past 12 years in 57 municipalities. The election of new local governments in Macedonia will give a new impetus to democratic processes in this country. The local communities will turn into services for their citizens, since it is at the local level that most of the citizens’ needs are satisfied.


Analysts expect fiercer rhetoric in the final part of the campaign, though care should be taken to prevent conflicts, violence and interference from foreign actors, mainly those from Serbia and Russia who are still making intensive efforts to destabilise Macedonia. Successful local election will be an important step on Macedonian road to Euro-Atlantic integration, as it will enable it to become the 30th full member of NATO and to finally start the negotiations for EU accession.


Ljubljana, 11 October 2017                                                                                                                            


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