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Negative campaigning and ethnic mobilization mark the local election campaign, which the opposition is trying to turn into a referendum on the government.
Elections are marked by a more than usual degree of negative rhetoric
The campaign for the March 24 local elections in Macedonia has got off to a bruising start, marked by a more than usual degree of negative rhetoric, slander and satanisation of the political opponents.
Instead on promoting ideas about local development, which is the usual stuff of local elections, the national political crisis that preceded the election campaign has shifted the focus onto national issues - starting with the opposition demand for early general elections.
Observers also note sharpened mobilization of Macedonians and Albanians on ethnic lines, particularly in the mixed western towns of Struga and Debar.
Nikola Spasov, head of the Rating research agency, says what differs from previous local elections “is that this time, national issues are dominant owing to the opposition strategy of turning the local election into a referendum on toppling the government”.
In his public appearances, the head of the opposition Social Democrats, Branko Crvenkovski, has indeed stuck to national issues, insisting that the local vote should be taken as a referendum on Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, whose VMRO DPMNE party has been in power since 2006.
The opposition election slogan “The Future Now!”, with a logo of a tightly clenched fist, aims to convince voters that the local election is a straight choice between the “totalitarian” and “corrupt regime” of Prime Minister Gruevski, and their own vision of a pro-European Macedonia.
“The SDSM is waging a retro-style campaign with the fist. It sends a revolutionary message, which, along with the other elements of their campaign, is more suited for a general election,” Goce Pacemski, a PR expert based in Skopje, said.
Observers say the opposition is trying to capitalise on the initial momentum of the political crisis that began on December 24, when the government parties passed a budget for 2013 in only minutes, after opposition MPs and journalists were expelled from the chamber.
Weeks of street protests followed, along with a boycott of parliament and a threat to boycott the forthcoming local elections.
VMRO DPMNE controls most of the 80 municipalities in Macedonia
The opposition agreed to join the elections only after the European Union brokered a deal on March 1.
While the opposition maintains a national focus, Gruevski insists that his ruling VMRO DPMNE party mayoral candidates should be judged on Sunday primarily on their own work and on the local projects that they have completed.
His party already controls most of the 80 municipalities in the country and holds the key post of mayor of Skopje.
But, despite the positive-sounding campaign slogan that calls on people to “Choose Deeds”, Gruevski also concentrates on negative campaigning against his opponent, Crvenkovski.
A repeat point in his speeches is that Crvenkovski is “working for Greek interests”, as he is allegedly more flexible when it comes to finding a compromise with Greece over Macedonia’s name.
The so-called “name” dispute with neighboring Greece has long held up the country’s European and Atlantic integration.
In several lengthy, frequently repeated advertisements, the ruling party tries to convince voters that the SDSM “creates chaos”, listing “All the lies of Branko Crvenkovski” and “The 100 Greatest Mistakes of SDSM”.
Another advertisement directly targets the opposition slogan “The Future Now!”, linking the opposition leadership to what is widely seen as the semi-criminal sales of state firms in the 1990s, ending with the punchline: “They are not your future!”
Political analyst Vladimir Bozinovski says basing a campaign on insults “is a risky move for all political parties… and will result in negative effects for all of them”.
The opposition will have to catch up in the last days of the campaign, observers say
Bozinovski and others note that the ruling party is also waging a more aggressive campaign in all the media than the opposition, partly because the opposition bloc lacks the cash to do so.
“The opposition will have to catch up in the last days of the campaign if it wants to reach out to the large percentage of undecided voters who are normally the main target of every election campaign,” Bozinovsi says.
Analysts say a decisive factor in the election will be the 30 per cent or so of the electorate who are usually undecided.
In the ethnic Albanian bloc, the head of the junior ruling party, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, Ali Ahmeti, is using his position to gain the support of central government for the projects that his mayoral candidates propose.
The head of the opposition Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, meanwhile, insists that Albanian voters should punish the DUI for being too obedient to Prime Minister Gruevski and for “promoting policies that go against Albanian interests”.
The most surprising twist so far has been the decision of VMRO DPMNE and the Social Democrats, normally at loggerheads, to field joint candidates for mayors and councillors in the western towns of Kicevo and Struga, where Macedonians and Albanians are almost equal in number.
“Struga and Kicevo are, and will remain, Macedonian towns,” Gruevski told a recent rally in Struga, making a blatant pitch for the ethnic Macedonian vote and angering local Albanians.
The decision of the two main Macedonian parties to submit joint candidates, in order to boost the chances of ethnic Macedonians becoming mayors, has triggered a counter-move in the Albanian camp.
The two main Albanian parties, the DUI and DPA have already agreed on a joint Albanian candidate for Kicevo, and are mulling cooperation in Struga.
Struga and Kicevo will remain Macedonian towns, Gruevski said
To add to the controversy, there are reports that the DUI has organized the mass return of ethnic Albanian voters from abroad to the two towns, to shift the balance towards Albanian candidates.
“People are coming, but we see nothing problematic in this as they are paying for their own plane tickets,” a senior DUI official told Balkan Insight on condition of anonymity.
The ethnic politics of Kicevo municipality are complex. The main ethnic Albanian parties seek the attachment of surrounding rural areas to the town, which would make Kicevo a predominantly Albanian municipality.
A similar move done earlier in Struga in 2004 helped Ramiz Merko, from the DUI, become the town's first ethnic Albanian mayor.
Observers fear this kind of mobilization along ethnic lines bodes ill for the country, further setting back dim hopes of a new post-ethnic politics emerging that disregards ethnic divisions.
The deals in the west “say a good deal about the anxiety between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians, which has become so great that it can even unite bitter political rivals,” political analyst Naser Ziberi noted.
“In these elections we see both inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic issues being misused by politicians, which can inflict great damage in the long run,” Xhabir Derala, head of Civil, an NGO that monitors the election campaign, said.
Not many polls:
Unlike previous elections, few opinion polls have appeared in the campaign, predicting the outcome.
Experts say this is down to the atypical and uncertain start to the campaign, which followed the December political crisis.
They say this made things more unpredictable, and gave opinion poll conducters less time to sample the popular mood.
Parties prefered taking their own opinion polls
“Another reason is that the parties this time preferred taking their own opinion polls for internal use and did not hire professional agencies,” Spasov noted.
“It is also complicated as we are talking about local elections in over 80 municipalities, and in many of them the outcome will only be determined in the second round, based on subsequently formed local alliances,” he added.
Two contradictory election forecasts came out this week, only adding to the confusion.
The Skopje-based NGO, MCMS came out with an opinion poll showing that in the race for the capital, the jewel in the crown of the election, the current mayor from VMRO DPMNE, Koce Trajanovski, leads by a thumping 44 to 19 per cent over his main rival contestant, Jani Makraduli, from the Social Democrats.
But on the same day, the pro-opposition Progres research institute said that its own poll showed the exact opposite: that Makraduli had a small advantage over Trajanovski.
While most observers give more chance to the ruling parties, owing to their more organized campaign and superior infrastructure, they agree that the results are tough to predict.
The opposition leader, Crvenkovski, at a rally in Skopje last week, meanwhile, has increased the stakes.
He says if if his party wins at least one more vote than the ruling parties in the local elections, they will promptly resume their campaign for snap general elections.
“If you are ready to wage the battle together [with me], like we agreed, till the end… I will not wait for the results on March 24, but will go out and call for early general elections,” he told tens of thousands of supporters at the rally.
The decision of the two main Macedonian parties to field joint candidates in the west in the local elections can only set back hopes of post-ethnic politics.
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