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Elections in North Macedonia: the importance of election observation in young democracies

On May 8th, landmark elections took place in North Macedonia. With many important issues on the line, including future EU membership, the validity of the elections was more important than ever. For this exact reason, observers from the Danish NGO “Silba – Initiative for Dialogue and Democracy” set out to observe these elections. In this account of the mission, a coordinator and two observers share their experiences and discuss the importance of election observation.

June 5, 2024 - Daniela Lange Andersen Jelle Baartmans John Bracken Stijn van der Veen - Articles and Commentary

A polling station in North Macedonia during the elections on May 8th 2024. Photo: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly / flickr.com

North Macedonia is in a predicament. Having fulfilled all the formal requirements to join the EU, it has never been able to be voted in due to disputes with its neighbours surrounding its national identity and name. The small country, beset with economic, corruption and identity politics has in the past flirted with autocracy. Now, following the 2016 Colourful Revolution, a new ruling party and an agreement with Greece about the country’s name, the parliament found itself facing another election. The opposition party VMRO-DPMNE was set to rule the country again, and likely change the country’s policies with its neighbours. While the election results largely met expectations, the more important question is how these results came to be. The issue of whether the elections were held in a free and fair manner could influence people’s trust in future elections, and whether they genuinely reflect the Macedonian people’s interest in a free and fair contest. This is why we observe.

Election Observation Missions (EOMs) are vital for developing democracies. When a country falls more on the autocratic side, these missions help inform the citizens of the problems with their country’s election and serve as a yardstick of how bad the situation has become. If a country leans more towards democracy, the recommendations help the electoral administration to improve for the next time. Whether party officials want to stifle fair elections or want to improve them, EOMs are essential when it comes to providing feedback.

Silba’s young observers

EOMs can consist of many different types of observers. All of these are essential in safeguarding democracy. Domestically, you have non-partisan observers, who are trained and deployed by NGOs and motivated by safeguarding their own democracy. On the other hand, you have partisan observers who represent the interests of the parties that hire them. International observers often come from large institutions such as the OSCE/ODIHR, the European Council, the European Parliament or even the Kosovo parliament. Silba’s young observers then form a remarkable third pillar of observers. They do not have a stake in the results, nor are they invited by a big institution. Instead, they are idealistically motivated to help developing democracies grow.

Our observers are young people between 18 and 35 years old that pay to be part of the mission. This means that our young observers are always some of the most motivated and idealistically driven people imaginable. We control for these biases by always sticking to the non-interference principle and by instructing the coordinators in what is important to include in the final report and what is perhaps just a cultural phenomenon. This unwavering commitment to develop democracies further underlines the importance of youth participation in electoral processes, whether domestically or abroad.

For many of our observers, the combination of both the monumental importance of these elections and the value that EOMs bring to safeguarding democracy was the main reason to join the mission. John Bracken, an observer originally from the west of Ireland, can explain this best in his own words.


Ahead of the mission, I evaluated my reasons for going. Firstly, the opportunity to visit a new country, not a Spain or a France, but rather the small Balkan nation of North Macedonia, was a slight incentive to join the observation mission. But of course, the chance to participate, even in just a small way, in the democratic process of a relatively new democracy stood as an opportunity I could not miss out on.

Coming into the election, what struck me in particular was how influential this election cycle was going to be in relation to the future of North Macedonia and its path to EU membership. Even the use of the word “North” when discussing the country played, as I could observe on the ground, a key role in influencing voters on election day. Billboards adorned the streets of Skopje, portraying the political messaging that the parties wished to convey to the electorate. The pre-election opposition, the VMRO-DPMNE coalition, advocated a message stating that “Macedonia is yours again,” while the pre-election ruling coalition, known as “For a European Future”, headed up by the Social Democrats (SDSM) party, urged voters to vote them in to keep the country on course for EU membership.

Against this backdrop, I set out alongside two other observers to watch the polls in the centre of the capital, Skopje. A full day of election observation awaited us as we witnessed the opening of the polls at seven in the morning and set out to observe multiple polling stations throughout the day, culminating in the closing of the polls twelve hours later. Throughout the day, we were generally welcomed at polling stations, with mild curiosity from voters queuing to vote at polling stations. Many organizers were accustomed to international observers, which is reflective of the importance of central Skopje as an electoral district.


For me as a first-time observer, one of the big questions before embarking upon our mission was how we would be welcomed by the polling station officials. On election day itself, I was even a bit surprised by how friendly and open their attitude was towards us as international observers. None of the officials that I encountered on election day tried to withhold any information from us and all of them were very transparent about the procedures that we were observing. This made our work significantly easier than it would have been otherwise.

We made some interesting observations outside the polling stations as well. For instance, in the Albanian-majority neighborhood of Čair in Skopje, we encountered flyer campaigns intended to discourage people from voting by appealing to their Islamic faith: “You are a Muslim, do not vote. You fear Allah, do not surround yourself with any other “God” besides him!” The flyers we found referenced a passage from the Quran: “Who could be a better judge than Allah for people of sure faith?” Clearly, this was a campaign specifically targeted at the Albanian majority and it may have impacted voter turnout in the area.

That is not to say that we did not notice any issues in the voting process itself. A recurring problem was the lack of identification badges worn by polling station officials. Typically, some of the officials would wear their badges, while others did not. This might seem a minor issue but it caused serious difficulties for us observers: sometimes it was impossible to establish who was who; what everyone’s role was inside the polling station; and most importantly, who was authorized to be present and who was not. The officials themselves sometimes did not recognize the issue. Polling stations were small and very local, and a number of voters knew some of the officials anyway. Whatever the reasons for not wearing badges, it potentially opens the door for more serious irregularities and we have therefore consistently reported it in our observations.

Irregularities and why little mistakes matter

During this mission, our observers came across various different irregularities and violations, such as the one Jelle noted. What stood out, however, was not so much the prevalence of these issues but rather the severity. Take for instance the issue of family voting. In Poland last year we observed in more than three-quarters of the observed polling stations families or groups voting together without any secrecy. In North Macedonia, this was only true in about 20 per cent of polling stations. This is lower than during previous missions in 2014, 2016 and 2019. However, despite the limited size of our mission, we did run into several instances where it was clear as day that partisan observers or the police were taking note of voters coming to vote. Most likely these were people they knew or had a special interest in. These practices can indicate coercion, vote buying, intimidation, or any other form of inducement to artificially raise the numbers of votes for a party or candidate. Therefore, these are very serious infractions and can severely hamper voters’ trust in the electoral system. These practices need to cease immediately.

Similarly, the irregularity that Jelle had encountered is one that can have significant consequences. For instance, it seemed that for both the observers and voters it was not clear who was actually running the elections. This, coupled with numerous instances where partisan observers did assist the polling station officials in various tasks, saw these small infractions add up and diminish the confidence of voters in the process. Similarly, while almost all polling station officials felt their training was sufficient, the way they received this training varied heavily. One chair of a polling station even proudly proclaimed they were training one of the officials during the conduct of the vote. Standardization of the training will likely improve electoral administration a lot and be conducive to the improvement of Macedonian elections overall.

We observed many more things than just those described by John and Jelle – which can all be read about in Silba’s final report. The findings in the final report only further underline the critical need for non-partisan international election observation missions. This is especially true concerning those carried out by young people, as they bring a very unique and valuable perspective to the cause. And with our world becoming more complex by the day, Silba will continue to be a watchdog of democracy.

Silba – Initiative for Dialogue and Democracy is a volunteer-driven youth NGO, based in Denmark but with an international scope. Through international projects and election observation missions, we take initiative to make a positive impact on democracy, all over the world, through dialogue, local community engagement and sustainable partnerships. We support democratic participation and the strengthening of civil liberties, and we bring young peoples’ voices to the front. To learn more about us and our work, visit our website Silba.dk.

Stijn van der Veen is specialized in democracy and elections in the territories of the former Soviet Union. He has participated twice in EOMs with Silba and has helped to organize three EOMs including this one. For this mission he was the press coordinator focusing on quality improvements and methodology.

Daniela Lange Andersen is currently studying Russian studies and journalism at the Aarhus University. She has experience with written media and podcasting from the Danish publication Magasinet rØST and the research dissemination podcast at nordics.info. For this mission she was the press coordinator focusing on social media comunication and media relations.

John Bracken from Ireland is a EU policy consultant at S&P Global in Brussels.

Jelle Baartmans works as a public affairs consultant in The Hague. He has a degree in International Relations from Leiden University and in Eastern European Studies from the University of Bologna.

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