Election preview: Macedonia

Parliamentary elections are being held tomorrow (Sunday) in Macedonia, together with the second round of the presidential election – the first round was two weeks earlier, on 13 April.

Macedonia was one of the constituent republics of the old Yugoslavia, declaring independence in September 1991. Its major ethnic group, now described simply as “Macedonian”, would once have uncontroversially been called Bulgarian, but remained outside of Bulgaria following the Balkan wars in 1912-13 and eventually developed its own separate identity. There is also a large Albanian minority in the north and west of the country.

The presidential election is a simple matter. Incumbent president Gjorge Ivanov of VMRO-DPMNE (more about them shortly) won 51.7% of the vote in the first round, against 37.5% for his main rival, Social Democrat Stevo Pendarovski. But a first round victory requires a majority of the total enrolment, not just the total voting, and of course Ivanov was well short of that. There’s no real doubt, however, that he will again beat Pendarovski tomorrow.

In any case, Macedonia has a parliamentary system, so the presidency is not where the real power is. The parliamentary election sees prime minister Nikola Gruevski, in office since 2006, seeking re-election. If he wins – which polls say is the most likely outcome – it will be his fourth straight victory, although the last three elections (including this one) have all been held early due to instability in the governing coalition.

Gruevski’s party, VMRO-DPMNE, stands for the somewhat alarmingly named Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity, but it’s basically a centre-right Macedonian nationalist party. At the 2011 election it won 39.0% of the vote and 56 seats; the Social Democrats had 42 seats from 32.8%, while three ethnic Albanian parties between them had 18.8% and the remaining 25 seats.

Gruevski re-formed his coalition with the Democratic Union for Integration, the largest of the Albanian parties, but it forced an early election this year after a dispute over nominating Ivanov for a second term as president. The Albanian view is that since they constitute about a quarter of the population they should be entitled to get one of the major nationwide offices, such as the presidency.

That could make things difficult for Gruevski, since unless VMRO-DPMNE can win an absolute majority, the Albanian parties might all co-operate with the Social Democrats to exclude it. Voting is proportional (D’Hondt, no threshold) in each of six 20-member constituencies (plus another three MPs to represent residents overseas), so a single-party majority is a difficult task.

There’s an obvious analogy with the Hungarian election earlier this month; like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Gruevski has been accused of authoritarian tendencies and of pandering to some unhealthy nationalist impulses. (He’s particularly fond of antagonising the Greeks, who object to use of the name “Macedonia”.) But there’s been no equivalent to Orbán’s manipulation of the electoral system, and nor does Macedonia have any comparable force to Hungary’s neo-fascist Jobbik party.

Gruevski’s re-election (if it happens) need not be seen as a success for autocracy: an alternative view is that it’s a welcome sign of political stability. For the first decade or more after democratisation, most of the ex-communist countries had the habit of changing government at every opportunity, as voters relished the exercise of a privilege long denied. Now many of them seem to be coming around to the idea that governments need to be given a fair test before being thrown out.

But if the Social Democrats again fall short tomorrow, it will also be another sign that Europe’s swing to the left, evident for most of last year, is petering out.

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