Q&A on the Macedonian Local Elections on October 15th

In the aftermath of the Macedonian local elections on October 15, The Vostokian interviewed its editor in chief Kristijan Fidanovski and its long-standing Macedonia contributor Aleksej Demjanski on some of the major takeaways.


The Vostokian: Which party/parties can legitimately claim to have won the elections?


AD: It seems that the SDSM has flipped the tables during these local elections and gained a big win. Compared to 2013 where Nikola Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE won about 56 of the 80 municipal mayorships it seems that the SDSM in this first round has gained over 40 of them with more likely to come in the second round voting on October 29. Key mayor seats in the capital Skopje were secured by the SDSM having ousted GROM’s Stevco Jakimovski in the Karposh Municipality and gained strong wins in Gjorce Petrov, Centar, and Aerodrom. Furthermore, it seems that the SDSM is securing strong majorities in the municipal councils which have significant sway over local policies which the SDSM has proposed to enact. Overall, it seems that the SDSM gained on the momentum coming from the December 2016 elections, the rocky government formation process, and the progress they have made in the few months since coming to power.


It seems that the SDSM has flipped the tables during these local elections and gained a big win.


KF: This was a landslide win for SDSM by at least two parameters. First, the party went from an all-time low of 4 mayors after the previous elections in 2013 to a fascinating 40 confirmed mayors after the first round only, and is likely to reach its all-time high result after the runoff. Second, the party either won or forced a runoff in virtually every major municipality in Skopje, including in the district of Gazi Baba where it has never won in the country’s history. A particularly pleasing victory is within reach in the Roma-majority district Shutka, which may well be freed on October 29 from the incumbent Elvis Bajram (Gruevski’s most loyal coalition partner) and his family after decades of despicably criminal rule. Equally pleasing would be the defeat of the convicted war criminal for crimes against humanity, Johan Tarculovski, who was widely expected to win in the first round in the traditional DPMNE stronghold of Kisela Voda.


The Vostokian: How do the results of these elections compare to those of the parliamentary elections in December 2016?


AD: These local elections are clearly a reaffirmation of the national elections held in December 2016. The SDSM and their coalition partners the DUI and the Alliance for Albanians have secured the majority of mayorships as well as majority percentages in the municipal councils across the country. In fact, these local election results surprised most Macedonians and analysts of Macedonian politics. Although in pre-election polling the SDSM was given a small edge over VMRO-DPMNE, the results show almost total domination in all of the municipalities. This is a clear indication that a majority of citizens are generally satisfied with the new path which the country has taken since the SDSM-led government came to power in late May. The foreign policy successes with regard to NATO and EU integration, particularly the signing of the Treaty of Friendship, Good-Neighborliness and Cooperation with Bulgaria and the renewed open dialogue with Greece, have given citizens a new hope. Although there has, in my opinion, been less success on the domestic front with regard to the healthcare system, education system, judicial reforms, and the economy, these are processes that need time and certain policies are slowly taking root. Hopefully we will see more progress on that end considering that Macedonia’s citizens are eager for change. If the government doesn’t meet demands then it is very aware that the people can and will punish them at the polls.


KF: Any comparison with December 2016 needs to be made with caution. Not only do local elections carry much less nationwide weight than parliamentary ones, but they also contain less legitimacy, which these elections certainly proved with their relatively low turnout of 59,7%. Moreover, despite SDSM’s clear nationwide win, many important municipalities will be decided in the runoff. Yet, these elections clearly confirm SDSM’s dramatically upward trend from December 2016, as well as its cross-ethnic appeal, with SDSM winning the municipality of Aracinovo (where they also won a number of votes in December 2016) with an ethnic Albanian candidate. I am slightly more skeptical about the extent to which SDSM’s success is a validation of its good performance since coming to power in June this year. Until yesterday, Gruevski’s decade-long authoritarian regime held a very firm grip on local government, which surely resulted in a high rate of negative voting. SDSM should by no means make the mistake of interpreting all of its votes from yesterday as genuine support either for its leadership or for its policies.


The Vostokian: In the December elections, many ethnic Albanian voters supported an ethnic Macedonian party (SDSM) for the first time. Yet, in the local elections, SDSM stood aside and supported the candidate of its coalition partner DUI (and vice versa) in a number of municipalities. Was this a good move for SDSM and how does it affect its long-term appeal to ethnic Albanian voters?


AD: When I first heard about this move I was extremely skeptical as to how it would play out. First, the DUI is still tainted by the fact that it was the VMRO-DPMNE’s coalition partner during the past decade of kleptocratic rule. The DUI was punished at the national elections in December 2016 by their voters who either voted for the SDSM or gave their votes to new ethnic Albanian parties such as BESA or the Alliance for Albanians. So the idea that SDSM or non-affiliated voters would support a DUI candidate in some places and vice versa with DUI voters supporting an SDSM candidate seemed risky. However, it seems to have paid off since in most municipalities the SDSM or DUI came out on top. Yet, in the places where the DUI did get ahead it seems that it was still very close and they will have to face BESA or the Alliance for Albanians in the runoff. It will be interesting to see how that plays out considering the implications it has for DUI and the fate of newer parties in the Albanian bloc.


KF: If I were a citizen of the ethnically mixed city of Tetovo, be it an ethnic Macedonian or an ethnic Albanian, I would be strongly disappointed with SDSM’s decision not to contest the race in this municipality and thus tacitly support its coalition partner DUI’s incumbent Teuta Arifi. During Arifi’s mayorship, Tetovo became the most polluted city in Europe! This disappointment will only increase if Arifi wins in the runoff, which she may well do after beating second-best Bilal Kasami from BESA by 12 percent yesterday.


The Vostokian: In December, two new ethnic Albanian parties (BESA and the Alliance for Albanians) entered parliament on their very first try. How did they do yesterday? Was the December 2016 shift in the Albanian party bloc permanent?


AD: It seems that both BESA and the Alliance for Albanians put up a good fight in the Albanian dominated municipalities against the DUI and forced a runoff. BESA didn’t secure a single mayorship yet and neither did the Alliance for Albanians. Seeing what voters do in the runoff in these areas will really tell us whether the new shift in the bloc is more solid or if it remains shaky with the DUI once again securing a dominant position.


KF: I agree. There is only one clear first-round takeaway from the ethnic Albanian party bloc: the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) has clearly lost its electoral base. Once the second-biggest ethnic Albanian party in Macedonia, DPA were severely damaged by their tacit loyalty to Gruevski revealed in the 2015 wiretapping scandal. After seeing their number of MPs get halved in December 2016, they are now left with only one small municipality at the local level.


Prime Minister Zaev said that “Macedonia is all we have”. He should follow his own words and focus on governing rather than calling a new election.


The Vostokian: What implications, if any, do the election results carry for the stability of the SDSM-DUI-Alliance for Albanians governing coalition? How likely do snap parliamentary elections seеm at this point?


AD: It is clear that the national government coalition is generally stable and that these local election successes for the coalition are important for the government. Whether they will call snap parliamentary elections within the next year to shore up their lead at the national level – I am not too sure. It is a risky decision and considering the back to back national and local elections the country has been through it could be too soon. However, the governing coalition does need to seize on the momentum that they currently have in order to boost their parliamentary majority. If they continue to be successful, particularly on the domestic front with the reforms they promised, then there is a chance that if they do hold snap elections within a year they could make more gains. The discussions surrounding concrete advances in EU and NATO integration coming in 2018 could also be the sort of push they want in order to call for the snap elections. However, I would be cautious of this since success in foreign policy does not equate to success at home. Voters are more interested in how the government will provide for them socio-economically in the short-term rather than the long-term goals of Euro-Atlantic integration.


KF: Since 2013, Macedonia has gone to the polls every year except in 2015. SDSM framed these elections as a vote on sending Gruevski into the dustbin of history and won. Thus, these elections strengthen the mandate of the executive government to enact substantive reforms in the next four years. It is hard to see how a win in a snap election would make this drastically easier. At the moment, the three coalition partners have a narrow majority of 62 in the 120-seat parliament, which means that they would have to win at least 18 more to gain the necessary two-third majority to pass laws more easily. As this would be highly unlikely, snap elections would be nothing but a tremendous waste of time and money. The first indication of the likelihood of a snap parliamentary election might be whether SDSM decides to support DUI’s candidate Ramiz Merko in the city of Struga against the leader of the Alliance for Albanians Zijadin Sela, which might severely hurt the stability of the governing coalition. Echoing Macedonia’s founding father Kiro Gligorov in his powerful victory speech yesterday, Prime Minister Zaev said that “Macedonia is all we have”. He should follow his own words and focus on governing rather than calling a new election.


SDSM framed these elections as a vote on sending Gruevski into the dustbin of history and won.


The Vostokian: Did yesterday’s results seal the political career of ex-Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski once and for all?


AD: Great question. I do believe that these local election results show that voters no longer support VMRO-DPMNE led by Nikola Gruevski. The younger generation “Reformists” within the party even came out following these elections and asked Gruevski to explain the results. It seems that even the intra-party dynamics within VMRO-DPMNE point toward a rejection of Gruevski and his policies. Whether that translates into the end of his political career and his retreat into the background of VMRO-DPMNE (if not prison at some point) is a whole other question. I personally do not believe that Gruevski will remove himself from the VMRO-DPMNE presidency quickly nor will he “retire” from his activities in politics. If anything, the recent pre-election press conference with and support from Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Slovenia’s former PM Janez Jansa, show that Gruevski has ambitions to remain politically engaged in Macedonia in the near future.


KF: I would take this even further and argue that the results not only sealed Gruevski’s fate, but the fate of VMRO-DPMNE itself. The “reformists” were right in demanding responsibility, but this party has revealed its inherent inability to reform too many times. With the young and educated voters, this party will always be associated with nothing but nationalism, ethnic intolerance, and corruption of biblical proportions. If DPMNE never recovers from this loss, that will be the true long-term gain for Macedonia from these elections. It is also worth mentioning that Gruevski himself pledged to “take responsibility” in case of defeat in a TV interview before the elections.  


Whether BESA and the Alliance for Albanians can seize on the same anti-establishment and anti-DUI sentiments from the national elections in December 2016 is questionable.


The Vostokian: What can we expect from the runoff vote?


AD: It looks like a little under half of the municipalities will need to vote again in the runoff on October 29. The majority of these are in predominantly Albanian areas where the DUI will have to face off against BESA or the Alliance for Albanians. These second round votes are incredibly important for the newer and smaller ethnic Albanian parties because how they do at the local level will likely determine their political future. Zijadin Sela of the Alliance for Albanians is looking to come out on top in the Struga region while BESA’s candidates in Saraj, Zhelino, and especially its leader Bilal Kasami in Tetovo are hoping to take down the DUI. Whether BESA and the Alliance for Albanians can seize on the same anti-establishment and anti-DUI sentiments from the national elections in December 2016 is questionable. BESA over the past few months has gained a reputation for being rather obstructionist with regard to some of the government’s policies. Similarly, the Alliance for Albanians has also gotten negative press with the fact that their current Health Minister, Arben Taravari, decided to make a run for the mayorship of Gostivar rather than stay committed to his position.


KF: Gruevski’s speech yesterday had all the trappings of a concession speech. While it is conventional wisdom that DPMNE is better than SDSM at mobilizing its electoral base at the local level, the psychological momentum will be strongly on SDSM’s side. Thus, wherever the two ethnic Macedonian parties face off against each other, SDSM can be expected to win. That said, turnout is normally lower in the runoff, which might help DPMNE, as virtually all of the still undecided municipalities are its traditional strongholds, which it would normally win with a landslide in the first round. In any case, the true fight will take place in the ethnic Albanian municipalities, and every vote could make a difference in Tetovo, Gostivar, and Struga!


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