Incumbents do well in the Balkans

(Apologies – computer problems prevented this post from appearing last Friday.)

Although it’s a very lean year for elections in western Europe, that’s not the case in the Balkans. Four countries from the former Yugoslavia are holding parliamentary elections this (northern) summer: Serbia last month, Montenegro at the end of August, and Croatia and North Macedonia in the last two weeks.

In Croatia, which voted on 5 July, the centre-right government that won office in 2016 under prime minister Andrej Plenković was seeking re-election. The signs had not been particularly good for it; in January the opposition Social Democrats succeeded in getting their candidate elected to the presidency, and the centre-left was ahead in the opinion polls for the early months of this year.

But as in many other countries, Covid-19 seems to have driven a swing back to the government. The ticket led by by Plenković’s Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) topped the poll with 37.3% and won 66 of the 151 seats, up 1.0% and five seats on its 2016 result. The Social Democrat-led ticket, “Restart”, could manage only 24.9% and 41 seats, down 8.6% and four seats.

That left the HDZ needing an extra ten votes for a parliamentary majority. The third largest group is the new right-wing Homeland Movement, led by former presidential candidate Miroslav Škoro; it scored 10.9% and 16 seats, evidently taking much of the support from the populist Živi Zid, which won 6.2% in 2016 but this time fell to 2.3% and lost all of its six seats.

The two other significant forces are Most (“Bridge”), the centrist group that previously partnered with the centre-right but left the government in 2017, which won 7.4% (down 2.4%) and eight seats (down five), and the new Green-Left Coalition, with 7.0% and seven seats. Three small liberal parties won five seats between them, and a further eight seats went to representatives of ethnic minorities.

Precedent would suggest a substantial period of bargaining, but the very next day Plenković announced that he had the required support, with two of the liberals and all of the minority representatives. While Croatia is still a country with many problems, it’s a real sign of progress that the HDZ, once a hard-line nationalist party, is now comfortable in governing with the aid of the Serbs and other minorities.

Then last Wednesday, North Macedonia (formerly Macedonia) went to the polls. Its government was from the centre-left, but it seemed to get the same benefit from incumbency.

At the previous election, in 2016, the centre-right ticket had (narrowly) won the most seats – 51 out of 120. But its Social Democrat opponents were able to command a majority with the help of parties representing the ethnic Albanian population, which won the remaining 20 seats. With their support the centre-left leader Zoran Zaev became prime minister.

This was a controversial move. The main centre-right party, VPRO-DPMNE, accused the Social Democrats of selling out the country to the Albanians. It was equally indignant when the new government went on to sign a treaty with Greece to resolve their long-standing dispute, which resulted in the country’s change of name and its admission earlier this year to NATO.

But it doesn’t seem to have done the government (now led by Oliver Spasovski, after Zaev resigned in January, although the latter remains party leader) much electoral harm. Its vote went down, from 37.9% to 35.9%, and it lost three of its 49 seats; actually a bigger drop than it looks, because this time its ticket included one of the Albanian parties, Besa, which had 5.0% and five seats last time. But VPRO-DPMNE’s ticket lost ground as well, down 4.8% to 34.6%, putting it about 12,000 votes and two seats behind the centre-left.

The big winners were the Albanian parties: the Democratic Union for Integration (BDI) won 11.5% (up 4.0%) and 15 seats (up five), and the Alliance for Albanians–Alternative won 8.9% (up 5.9%) and 12 seats (up nine). The smaller Democratic Party of Albanians lost one of its two seats, while the far-left Left party won representation for the first time, with 4.1% and two seats.

Unfortunately for Zaev, the two big Albanian parties are on bad terms with each other, so getting them both into a coalition is likely to prove difficult. Combination with the BDI alone would give him a bare majority of 61 seats, as would an alliance including all of the smaller parties.

The Albanians have co-operated with the centre-right in the past, so that shouldn’t be ruled out, but in view of VPRO-DPMNE’s recent embrace of anti-Albanian rhetoric it seems unlikely. Most probably Zaev will return as prime minister to pursue his dream of following Croatia into membership of the European Union.




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