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News 15 Oct 17

Polls Open in High Stakes Elections in Macedonia

Voting has begun in Macedonia in local elections whose results will be seen as a key test of the new government’s popularity.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
BIRN
Skopje
 
 Voting in Macedonia. Archive photo: MIA

A total of 3,480 polling stations opened at 7am on Sunday for Macedonia’s local elections, in which some 1.8 million voters will have the right to choose mayors and local councils in 80 municipalities plus the capital, Skopje.

Voters will choose between a total of 260 mayoral candidates for the 81 municipalities until 7pm Sunday, when polling stations close.

The main contestants in the elections are the ruling Social Democrats, SDSM, led by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, and the opposition right-wing VMRO DPMNE party, which was ousted in May after 11 years in power.

In mainly ethnic Albanian-dominated municipalities, concentrated in north-west Macedonia, the main battle is being fought between the junior ruling party, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, and several smaller Albanian rivals, like the BESA movement and the Alliance for Albanians, who seek to end the DUI's long dominance of the Albanian community.

Main parties face high stakes:

The vote comes after a two-and-a-half-year-long political crisis, which only ended in May with the election of a new SDSM-led government.

The local election results, therefore, are a matter of high stakes both for the new ruling party and the opposition VMRO DPMNE.

The elections will be seen as an important test of the popularity of the new reformist pro-EU and pro-NATO government.

Macedonian Prime Minister and SDSM leader, Zoran Zaev. Photo: MIA


Under the slogan “Life for All in Macedonia”, the SDSM has focused its campaign on promoting measures to curb high pollution levels in the country, stopping unchecked construction, greater de-centralisation and allocating more equal funds for proper urban and rural development.

The SDSM has also emphasised its renewed efforts to relaunch Macedonia’s EU and NATO accession bids, which were blocked under the past VMRO DPMNE-led governments.

The blockade was mainly the result of the failure to resolve the dispute with neighbouring Greece over the country’s name, to which Athens objects.

The elections also pose a big challenge for the VMRO DPMNE leader and former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who is facing criminal investigations related to his party’s 11 years in power.

The results of the election will greatly impact on his chances of staying on as head of the party, amid calls for his resignation.

The SDSM hope that a good result for them will mark the end of the Gruevski era in politics, while VMRO DPMNE hope that a strong vote for their party will mean an early general election and their comeback to government.

While currently running the central government, the SDSM at a local level controls only four out of the 81 municipalities, as opposed to 56 that VMRO DPMNE won control of in the previous local elections held in 2013.

Top members of the then ruling VMRO DPMNE are now being charged with electoral fraud over those elections.

Opposition plays the national card:

Ever since the early general elections on December 11 last year, which ended in a tie between the two main parties, VMRO DPMNE has disputed the right of the SDSM – which meanwhile asssembled a narrow majority in parliament thanks to the support of ethnic Albanian parties – to run the country.

For several months after the general election, VMRO DPMNE refused to hand over power to the new majority and only did so eventually in a tense atmosphere and under international pressure.

VMRO DPMNE insists that the SDSM has jeopardised Macedonia’s national interests by making too many concessions to the Albanian parties.

During the local election campaign, VMRO DPMNE continued to play hard on the national card, accusing the SDSM of betraying Macedonian interests by agreeing to a new law extending the official use of the Albanian language. This is now in the pipeline.

It also criticised the recently signed friendship agreement with neighbouring Bulgaria, under which Bulgaria withdrew its objections to Macedonia’s EU and NATO accession.

Opposition VMRO DPMNE leader, Nikola Gruevski. Photo: MIA


VMRO DPMNE said it also suspected the recent warming in relations with Greece might lead to the offer of more concessions over the country’s constitutional name.

It has also accused the new government of planning to settle migrants from war-torn Middle Eastern countries in Macedonia, despite government denials.

After 11 years in power and dominating most municipalities for a long time, this party has vowed to end Macedonia’s “eclipse” and inaugurate a “New era”.

Corruption accusations dominate Albanian camp:

In the ethnic Albanian-dominated municipalities, concentrated in north-west Macedonia, the DUI’s smaller rivals, such as BESA and the Alliance for Albanians, have accused incumbent DUI mayors of corruption and passivity.

Seeking to end the DUI’s long dominance over the country’s Albanian communities, they have criticised the DUI for spending eight years in coalition governments led by VMRO DPMNE, before shifting sides and joining the SDSM.

According to these parties, the DUI only shifted camp to evade responsibility for past corrupt practices and it has lost the right to lead Albanian-dominated municipalities.

Ruling parties hatch local election deals:

The DUI hopes the key to victory in the mainly Albanian municipalities may lie in its recent informal cooperation deal with the SDSM.

In the elections, the SDSM has abstained from promoting its own candidates in Albanian dominated areas like Tetovo, Gostivar, Debar and others, where it supports the DUI candidates instead.

In the same way, the SDSM hopes to pull off a victory in the capital, Skopje, the prize at the elections, and in the ethnically mixed town of Kumanovo, thanks to DUI support.

In the race for Skopje, SDSM candidate Petre Silegov hopes to beat incumbent VMRO DPMNE mayor Koce Trajanovski, by capitalising on his party’s better overall standing among Albanians. In last year's general election, the SDSM polled some 40,000 ethnic Albanian votes as opposed to almost none for the VMRO DPMNE.

Preliminary election results are expected late on Sunday and Monday. However, in many places, a mayor will only be elected in the second round, set for October 29, between the two leading candidates from the first round.

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