On Sunday 15 October Macedonia’s main ruling Social Democrats (SDSM) of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has won in more than 41 of the 81 municipalities (previously they held a majority in 3 municipalities) in the first round of voting for the local elections. Zaev called the winning of the local elections ‘’a victory of democracy’’. Indeed, after years of weakening democracy and rule of law, hopes are high as the repressive regime of former Prime Minister Gruevski is now ousted on local level as well. In major towns, such as Bitola, Veles, Kumanova, Ohrid and Strumica, as well as in smaller rural areas SDSM’s candidates won. In Macedonia’s capital Skopje, which is considered as the main prize in the local elections, the SDSM also became the largest party. ‘’This is how Macedonia looks when the voting is free, peaceful, and without pressures,’’ Zaev said during victory celebrations last night.
The ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), the junior ruling coalition partner of SDSM, secured a lead in 30 Albanian-dominated municipalities, albeit it did not manage to win the city of Tetovo in the first round, which is seen as the most important municipality of the Albanian bloc. Candidates of main opposition party VMRO-DPMNE have a lead in 13 municipalities. Compared to the 2013 local elections, in which the conservative party of former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski was allowed to appoint 56 mayors, the party greatly lost during this first round.
Although police and the State Electoral Commission (DIK) said the voting was mostly peaceful, Gruevski complained about irregularities, saying the elections ‘’passed in an undemocratic atmosphere and in unfair conditions.’’ The police had received 46 complaints, including voter bribery and chain voting. Ten people were arrested in connection with these reports. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which sent 300 observers to the country, has not yet commented on the findings. Officials estimated the turnout of this first round of Macedonia’s local elections at about 60 per cent.
Towards the future
The local elections were an important test for the left coalition, which came in power in May after an extended period of political instability. For the SDSM-led coalition, the results indicate the government has the support of Macedonia’s majority with respect to its policies towards NATO and EU membership as well as the resolving of investigations into alleged wiretapping and elections fraud by the former VMRO-DPMNE-led coalition, which was in power for 11 years. Right-wing party VMRO-DPMNE denies the accusations, however, blaming foreign spies for the scandal.
The results of the local elections are a slap in the face for VMRO-DPMNE. Former Prime Minister Gruevski did not say whether he would resign as the party’s leader. ‘’I, as the party president certainly hold the highest responsibility for these results. We will discuss this immediately after the end of the elections.’’
Candidates of VMRO-DPMNE have mainly focused on national issues during the campaign, rejecting the policies of the left government. VMRO-DPMNE denounces the attempts of the ruling parties to make Albanian an official language. Furthermore, the party accuses the SDSM of planning to change the country’s name in deference of Greece, in order to fasten Macedonia’s accession talks. Athens has been vetoing Skopje’s attempts to join the EU and the NATO until now, because the name Macedonia should only be used for Greece’s northern province. The lingering name dispute with Greece has to be resolved before Macedonia is allowed to join the EU and the NATO.
Zaev’s led-coalition won this round, but the fight is not over yet. Mayors will only be elected in the second round, which is scheduled for 29 October. There will especially be a struggle for the votes of Albanians, which makes about 25 per cent of Macedonia’s population. The ruling coalition party DUI will have to face the other Albanian parties, the Alliance for Albanians and BESA.