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Double elections end North Macedonia’s de facto duopoly, but sometimes more is less

Dissatisfaction with the Social Democrats and nationalist demands from Bulgaria have shifted the country to the right.

May 14, 2024 - Kristijan Fidanovski - AnalysisHot Topics

Elections in North Macedonia. Photo: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly observation mission to North Macedonia / flickr.com

On the surface, the outcome of North Macedonia’s presidential runoff and parliamentary election on May 8th bodes well for its democracy.

First, in a country designated as a “captured state” as recently as eight years ago by the European Union, which it has aspired to join since its independence, a landslide victory at a ratio of 3:1 for the opposition party in both votes suggests a free and fair electoral process.

Second, the new government coalition is almost certain to exclude the Democratic Union for Integration, an ethnocentric party catering to the votes of the country’s Albanian minority, after an uninterrupted 16-year stint in power marred with countless (but usually quickly buried) corruption allegations and divisive rhetoric.

Third, the new parliament includes a brand-new party founded only several months before the vote (ZNAM – For our Macedonia). Alongside the threefold rise in support for another small party (Levica) from two to six MPs in the 120-seat parliament, as well as incumbent SDSM (Social Democratic Union of Macedonia)’s spectacular loss of more than three fifths of its seats (down to 18), this indicates major party fragmentation in a country long accustomed to a de facto SDSM-DPMNE duopoly.

Unfortunately, a closer look at the new parliament reveals that much of what is there is not good news for a(n) (aspiring) liberal democracy, and what is not there is certainly bad news.

North Macedonia’s next prime minister: from Gruevski’s shadow to a (wannabe) center-right reinvention

Start with the big winner: VMRO-DPMNE (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity), whose pre-electoral coalition commands a formidable 58 seats, or close to an absolute majority, which the party might still reach if several other MPs switch sides. VMRO-DPMNE is the party that orchestrated the aforementioned state capture under former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who fled to Hungary in 2018 and was given sanctuary by his long-standing ally Viktor Orban after receiving a two-year prison sentence for misappropriating public funds to procure a 600,000 euro luxury car for himself and his family. Its current party leader and prime minister-designate, Hristijan Mickoski, served as energy advisor and head of the national electricity enterprise under Gruevski.

In the seven years since taking over as party leader in 2017, Mickoski has oscillated between portraying himself and the new leadership as modern center-right politicians and implying continuity with the Gruevski years, both in terms of his failure to sufficiently denounce Gruevski’s undemocratic practices and outright wrongdoings as well as in the open embrace of (ethno-)nationalist rhetoric. When his former boss fled, Mickoski denounced the act itself but reiterated his perception of the legal case against him and other party officials as politically motivated, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, not least the leaked wiretapped phone conversations between the former party leadership that were heard by the entire country in 2015-16.

In recent years, however, Mickoski has sought to escape Gruevski’s shadow and strengthen his authority as party leader. Аs recently as a year and a half ago, Gruevski’s personal popularity exceeded Mickoski’s (as well as that of any politician in the country), despite a landslide VMRO-DPMNE win in the October 2021 local election, by which point dissatisfaction with SDSM had become abundant.

In late 2023, however, Mickoski engaged in a public feud with Gruevski, accusing him of colluding with SDSM. Most of the high-profile figures in Gruevski’s governments, some of whom have served time in prison, are no longer active in the party. Mickoski has added several new faces to the party’s top echelons and VMRO-DPMNE’s mayors have avoided any major scandals for the past three years. (A notable exception is Skopje’s mayor, Danela Arsovska, who is widely regarded as the most incompetent mayor in the history of the city. She split with the party as early as 2022, leaving the capital city paralyzed by her constant bickering with the VMRO-DPMNE-controlled city council.)

Mickoski’s (dis)continuity with Gruevski’s (ethno)nationalism is a similarly mixed bag. One area where Mickoski has certainly been more moderate is with regards to interethnic relations, which Gruevski sought to cynically instrumentalise by stoking tension in a last-ditch attempt to remain in power in 2016-17. In the latest election campaign, Mickoski signaled his intention to govern alongside the ethnic Albanian opposition coalition Vlen and framed the vote as an opportunity for citizens of all ethnicities to vote DUI out of office, although his near-exclusive rhetorical focus on DUI, rather than his direct competitor SDSM, smacked of playing the ethnic card. (DUI is the successor of an Albanian militant group which fought in a limited armed conflict against the Macedonian government in 2001.)

Yet, Mickoski has found another vehicle for bolstering his patriotic credentials: the ongoing dispute with Bulgaria. Since 2021, contrary to a bilateral agreement signed in 2017, Bulgaria has been blocking North Macedonia’s opening of accession talks with the EU (beyond the now-completed screening stage) with a series of rather abrupt nationalist demands. Among other things, Sofia has demanded the incorporation of a so-called “Bulgarian community” into the Macedonian constitution and has sought to influence the work of a bilateral expert commission on the two countries’ shared historical legacies.

The Social Democrats “deserved” to go down, but for different reasons

North Macedonia’s negotiating framework with the EU, received in July 2022, alludes to the EU’s unanimous decision-making on enlargement and highlights Bulgaria’s right to object to the country’s future progress. While the extent to which this wording would enable Bulgaria to hold the process hostage to its delicate and often abstract demands is unclear, it has somewhat understandably angered the vast majority of the Macedonian public (especially ethnic Macedonians), only several years after the country had been renamed into North Macedonia at Greece’s insistence.

Over the past several years, the Bulgaria dispute has served as a blessing in disguise for VMRO-DPMNE and the last (albeit possibly crucial) nail in the coffin of an already-struggling SDSM. After the aforementioned local election defeat in 2021, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev was replaced by Dimitar Kovacevski and several new ministers, most of them (including Kovacevski himself) hitherto unknown to the wider public. This merely exacerbated the party’s downward trajectory after corruption verdicts against two successive general secretaries of the government (for wrongdoings committed during the Zaev years), several controversial key infrastructure projects, and most notably, the inexplicably self-harming adoption (in 2023) of a law shortening the statute of limitations on a series of legal cases, including those against VMRO-DPMNE’s officials related to the wiretapping scandal.

It is far from clear, however, that these domestic factors contributed more than the Bulgaria dispute (and the broader dissatisfaction with the EU accession process) to the wholesale turn of the political tide in the country since the previous parliamentary election in 2020, which SDSM won, albeit very narrowly and as part of a pre-electoral coalition with an ethnic Albanian party.

Supporters of SDSM, a post-1991 successor of the League of Communists of Macedonia, and to some extent Macedonians at large, are particularly sensitive to tension with Bulgaria, which used to be perceived as backward at best and an enemy at worst during socialism. Some of Bulgaria’s demands hit at the core of the Macedonian nation-building process during the Yugoslav years, when the Macedonian language was codified as distinct from Bulgarian, with which it still shares strong similarities. Paradoxically, despite all its domestic failures, it might have been factors outside of the party’s control that provided the point of no return for SDSM. Mickoski, and especially his candidate and now president-elect Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, both of whom take a hardline approach to the Bulgaria dispute and oppose(d) the 2018 name change agreement, have failed to reconcile their stances on these issues with their alleged commitment to the EU accession process.

Party system fragmentation? More like a wholesale shift to the right (“thanks”, Bulgaria)

Yet, this contradiction has not stopped the party from catapulting itself into power, most likely alongside the aforementioned ZNAM, whose leader, Maksim Dimitrievski, has been particularly vocal on the Bulgaria dispute. Both parties oppose the constitutional inclusion of a “Bulgarian community”, which is a strange demand from Sofia, given the mere 3,000 self-declared ethnic Bulgarians resident in the country, but it is made innocuous by the fact that the Macedonian constitution already refers to many of its various ethnic groups. Mickoski and Dimitrievski would only be open to such a law if it became valid at the end of the accession talks, which has been rejected by Bulgaria.

In fact, whether VMRO-DPMNE includes ZNAM in the new government might provide an early signal of Mickoski’s intentions regarding the Bulgaria dispute. Strategically, he would be well-advised to do so even if he does not intend to soften his stance on the constitutional changes, as joining the government would curb ZNAM’s anti-establishment appeal (while boosting its clientelistic appeal), potentially hurting the party in the long run.

Conversely, leaving both ZNAM and Levica out of the new government would suggest that Mickoski has no intention of warming up to Sofia. Any concessions to Bulgaria by a government with no other ethnic Macedonian parties would leave VMRO-DPMNE too vulnerable to a challenge from the right – a scenario Mickoski would be unwise to entertain. The lack of progress on the Bulgaria (and EU accession) front would, however, drive a wedge between VMRO-DPMNE and Vlen.

Levica (which currently seems unlikely to enter the new government), for its part, goes as far as calling for the abolition of the historical commission and a revisiting of the country’s entire interethnic social contract. This leaves North Macedonia with one of its most superficially diverse parliaments since independence (in terms of the number of parties in it), but its most uniform one in recent memory in terms of ideas.

One of the very few European countries without a green party in parliament, let alone parties catering to any marginalized communities other than ethnic minorities, North Macedonia today feels like a uniquely lopsided case of the party system fragmentation that has been engulfing Europe for at least a decade. Unlike other European countries where the mainstream centre-left party has seen a major decline – think France, Italy or Greece – only in North Macedonia have the spoils been scooped up exclusively by parties to the right of SDSM, rather than by (a) more intuitive liberal-left challenger(s). The centre-to-far-right rhapsody transcends ethnic boundaries and includes the ethnocentric DUI and even Vlen, which is yet to articulate any substantive policy platform beyond a vague anti-corruption agenda and its ethnic-based raison d’etre.

Of course, Macedonian citizens mainly have the short-sighted pandering of their political elites to “thank” for the underwhelming outcome of their double election, which reflects the widespread popular opposition to the unnecessary and unabashedly nationalist Bulgarian demands. It was Sofia – and Brussels – that made North Macedonia’s shift to the right possible in the first place.

Kristijan Fidanovski is a Public Policy Researcher at the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (wiiw) and a PhD Candidate at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford, where he examines pronatalist policies in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. He holds an MA in Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies from Georgetown University and a BA in the same field from University College London. His other research interests include EU integration, bilateral disputes, and conspiracy theories.

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