No resolution in Macedonia

Macedonians voted overnight in a referendum on changing their country’s name, pursuant to an agreement with Greece (previewed on Friday). At least, some of them did. The “yes” vote won a huge majority with 91.5%; 5.6% voted “no” and another 2.9% informal.

But turnout was only 36.9%, way below the 50% required for validity. (See official results here.)

I don’t like this sort of threshold provision, and this is a good example of why. Because opponents of the change asked their followers to boycott the vote, we can’t tell how strong that opposition was, since we can’t tell how many of the non-voters were making a deliberate choice to that effect.

We can get a rough idea by looking at the turnout from the last Macedonian election (two years ago), which was 66.8%. If we assume the additional 29.9% were all “no” supporters, and add them to the small number who turned out to vote “no”, we get an even 32% of the voting population – just below the 33.7% who turned out and voted “yes”.

But there’s no assurance that the boycotters would all have voted “no”; probably a fair number would have voted informal. On the other hand, a referendum is a simpler thing to vote in than an election, so the “underlying” turnout may well be higher than 66.8%. Those two things may or may not cancel out.

If there had been no threshold, the opponents of the referendum would have had to declare their hand more honestly and we would have had a better gauge of public opinion.

Nonetheless, we can certainly say that Macedonia is sharply divided on the issue. The low turnout doesn’t prevent the change being put to parliament, but it will embolden the opposition to vote against it there, where it requires a two-thirds majority – which the government does not have on its own.

Prime minister Zoran Zaev has said that if parliament blocks the agreement, he will call early elections to get a fresh mandate. It’s hard to see that he has much alternative; progress on admission talks with the European Union depends on resolving the dispute with Greece, and it’s most unlikely that the Greek government, with its own rabid nationalists on the warpath, will offer any more generous terms if things go back to the negotiating table.

The EU, in my view, has already been dragging its feet far too much on admission of the West Balkans countries. It would be most unfortunate if the Macedonians gave it yet another excuse to keep them waiting.

4 thoughts on “No resolution in Macedonia

  1. A more moderate threshold – 25% or 33% – would have been better. In addition, it should be framed as a “support” quorum, not a “turnout” quorum – as “the YES votes need to represent 50.001% of the total valid votes (or at least the combined YES and NO votes) and also (say) 33% of all eligible voters”, rather than the more depressingly common European version (Italy and Sweden do this too) of “the YES votes need to represent 50.001% of the total valid votes, and the total valid votes also need to exceed (say) 50% of all eligible voters”. In other words, it should not be possible for you to help a proposal pass by turning out and casting a NO vote against it; the rules should not give any incentive for committed opponents to boycott and abstain. Referenda rules should be monotonic.
    Some past referenda (Bavaria in the 1920s, I think, and Poland in 1989) required not just the turnout but the YES votes to exceed 50% of all eligible voters. In Bavaria this meant conservative landowners could ensure their tenants de facto voted NO simply be ensuring they didn’t vote at all.
    The ACT has that same rule for amending entrenched Territory laws, but (a) with compulsory voting, the difference between 50% of votes and voters is much smaller, and there’s much less scope to depress turnout as a NO-side strategy, plus (b) there’s the alternative of amendment by two-thirds of the Assembly as a safety valve (and there’s only four heads’ difference between 13 MLAs out of 25 and 17 out of 25 anyway).


    1. Yes, that would be more sensible: have some modest threshold, but don’t count “no” votes towards it, so that the “no” votes and the abstentions are actually telling you different things. I wasn’t aware of that provision in the ACT – thanks for that; as you say, compulsory voting makes it much less of an issue.

      Incidentally, I don’t know why your comments aren’t being approved automatically – I’ll have to inspect WordPress’s insides and see if I can work it out.


  2. Flattered, Charles. The ACT provision is s26(3) of the ACT Self-Govt Act 1988 (“If a majority of the electors approve the entrenching law, it takes effect…”)
    Re quorums, I suspect one reason the “majority of all must turn out, majority of those turning out must vote yes” attracts people is that it seems to secure majority rule better than (say) “at least one-third must turn out and vote yes, and majority of those turning out must vote yes”. (Probably why it was adopted as the common-law presumption and then entrenched by Madison and co in the US Constitution). Yet “50% of 50%” is illusory as a higher threshold since it can mean a change could pass with 25.001% of all qualified voters voting YES against 25.000% of them voting NO (the other 49.999% abstaining) but also means a change could be defeated with 49.999% voting YES if all other enrolled voters abstain. Weimar Germany required “two-thirds of the Reichstag must attend, and two-thirds of those attending must vote in favour” for constitutional amendments – yet this could mean as little as 44.44% of deputies could pass an amendment. (Admittedly this was not the main cause of Weimar’s downfall). For me, like I said, consistent monotonicity – there should never be an incentive for opponents to stay home rather than voting no – is the decider.


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