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.