On Wednesday, Macedonians vote in their first parliamentary election since the country changed its name in January 2019 to North Macedonia. In mid-March, the covid-19 pandemic prompted the government to postpone the elections, originally scheduled for April.
The name change settled a long-standing dispute with neighboring Greece. In exchange, Greece agreed to stop vetoing Macedonia’s accession into NATO and the European Union. The Macedonian public was divided on changing the country’s name, but Prime Minister Zoran Zaev of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) succeeded in winning parliamentary approval.
NATO accession proceeded smoothly — Macedonia became the alliance’s 30th member in March. But E.U. accession talks remain on hold, following a veto from France in October. The political conflict over the name change, the delay in E.U. accession and a high-level corruption scandal triggered the decision to hold early parliamentary elections.
The name change and E.U. accession have remained hot topics in the election campaign, despite the March 25 announcement that the E.U. would open accession talks. Polls indicate a tight race between the two dominant parties, the SDSM and the nationalist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party (VMRO-DPMNE). The largest ethnic Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), could be the kingmaker in forming a governing coalition.
What prompted the early elections?
The country has been an E.U. candidate since 2005 but failed to get approval to start accession talks because of the name dispute. The E.U. has also expressed concern with the country’s stalled progress in meeting democratic governance standards under the 2006-2016 VMRO-DPMNE prime ministership of Nikola Gruevski.
Thousands of wiretap recordings released in 2015 demonstrated widespread corruption, bribery and intimidation in Macedonian political institutions and the media. Public protests led to the “Przino agreement,” which installed a caretaker cabinet, established a special prosecutor for corruption and created a path toward early parliamentary elections in December 2016. The VMRO-DPMNE came in first with 51 of 120 seats, but the SDSM formed a majority coalition in May 2017 with Zaev as prime minister.
In June 2018, Zaev and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras signed an agreement to settle the name dispute. Both countries’ parliaments gave their approval in January 2019. But the name change divided the Macedonian public. The nationalist VRMO-DPMNE opposed it as a threat to Macedonian national identity. The SDSM and ethnic Albanian parties supported it because resolving this long-standing issue offered prospects for economic prosperity and security by joining the E.U. and NATO.
In August, Special Prosecutor Katica Janeva — a close ally of Zaev — became embroiled in her own corruption scandal. Wiretapped conversations and surveillance videos revealed that she had used her position to extort money from the business elite. She recently received a seven-year prison sentence.
The trio of factors — the name change, stalled progress on E.U. accession and yet another corruption scandal — led the VMRO-DPMNE to demand an early election. Macedonian law requires the prime minister to step down 100 days prior to an election and be replaced by a caretaker cabinet. The parties had agreed on an April 12 election, so Zaev and his cabinet stepped down in early January. Minister of Internal Affairs Oliver Spasovski replaced Zaev as prime minister.
On March 18, the government declared a state of emergency because of the pandemic. This resulted in postponing the April 12 election, and the caretaker cabinet remained in office. A week later, the E.U. finally agreed to open the accession process to North Macedonia. This fulfilled the key objective of the name change and gave a boost to Zaev and the SDSM.
But without a firm date for the postponed election, the parties had to balance public health concerns with their political interests. The incumbent SDSM wanted elections as soon as possible, to capitalize on the boost in public support from the E.U. news. The VMRO-DPMNE’s stance was to delay as long as possible with the hope that SDSM support would dwindle as the economic consequences of the pandemic took hold. After multiple meetings, the parties agreed in mid-June to hold the postponed election on July 15.
The pandemic itself became a campaign issue.
The pandemic not only affected the decision of when to hold the election, but it has also become a campaign issue. In early June, following lax enforcement of covid-19 measures at religious holiday gatherings, the country experienced a rapid increase in cases. The government responded by reducing restrictions, at times ignoring the recommendations of the Commission for Infectious Diseases.
And yes, there have been further revelations of political corruption — secret recordings have become a regular feature in Macedonian politics. This time, the surveillance videos appeared on anonymous YouTube channels. Recordings revealed leading political figures using vulgar language to describe their allies, attempting to extort money and exerting political control over the courts.
For the first time in Macedonian politics, the SDSM formed a pre-electoral coalition with an ethnic Albanian party, the center-right BESA, to attract greater support among Albanian voters, who make up around 25 percent of the population. Following this development, the DUI party increased its pro-Albanian rhetoric, pushing for the country to have its first ethnic-Albanian prime minister.
Where does this leave election forecasters? One poll, by the IPIS, shows the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE in the lead with 21.9 percent, followed by the incumbent SDSM in coalition with BESA garnering 19.8 percent support. A poll by NDI puts the SDSM-BESA coalition in the lead with 24.8 percent, compared with the VMRO-DPMNE at 21.2 percent.
The VMRO-DPMNE will probably win among ethnic Macedonians, and the SDSM-BESA will have an advantage in predominantly Albanian municipalities. With no party expected to win a majority of seats, formation of a new government will probably depend on post-election coalition negotiations with the DUI.
Mary Stegmaier is the interim vice provost for international programs and an associate professor in the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri. Her research focuses on voting behavior, elections, forecasting and political representation.
Martin Okolikj is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Political Research at KU Leuven. His research interests are in the fields of political methodology and comparative politics, with a focus on elections, voting behavior and quality of government.