The Macedonian name change referendum
Despite a low turnout and a prospect of snap elections, the referendum does push things further.
Sunday’s referendum in Macedonia was about more than changing the name to North Macedonia and the benefits that would follow such a decision. It was just as much a vote on a mandate for Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s pro-Nato and EU coalition government to continue its line of reaching a long overdue compromise with its southern neighbour, Greece.
The vote itself went the right way with just over 91 per cent voting in favour of the deal. The referendum was non-binding from the outset, as the name change would require legislative changes from the parliament. It did not help however, that the turnout was just under 37 per cent which made it invalid. The attendance at the ballot boxes was no doubt influenced by a campaign by the nationalist opposition VMRO-DPMNE, to have people stay at home instead of voting. This is clear when one takes into consideration that the 2016 parliamentary election had a turnout of 66 per cent. As with most votes in Europe in recent times, also this one had accusations of Russia attempting to influence the outcome, something Russia denies.
Much political capital was spent on this referendum by the governing coalition headed by the Socialist SDSM. The referendum will surely be a focal point in Macedonian political life in the coming time. The next step was to get the compromise approved in parliament and this might still go on as scheduled. It does require a 2/3 majority, which means that it would need 9 votes from the opposition VMRO-DPMNE with the current numbers. As this is becoming less likely with the weak mandate from the referendum, it seems possible that Macedonians will be called back to the polling place for general elections in the not so distant future.
Prime Minister Zaev told New Eastern Europe in February 2018 that:
“The barrier is the name issue. We are good neighbours, we have good co-operation. But the problem exists now for 23 years and we hope we can find a solution in the first half of 2018.”
Even if this prognosis was optimistic at the time and the recent referendum invalid, the priorities and intentions of the pro-NATO, EU block of Macedonian politics will remain the same.