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comment 21 Dec 15

Postponing Elections is Macedonia’s Only Hope

The EU should have the courage to tell Macedonia to delay an election for which the country is wholly unprepared.

By Erwan Fouéré

The statement adopted by the European Council last week on the crisis in Macedonia could not have been clearer. It expressed “grave concern about the situation in the country, in particular the serious political crisis, marked by a divisive political culture, lack of culture of compromise, backsliding on freedom of expression and judicial independence, as well as further erosion of trust in public institutions”.

No wonder many question Macedonia’s preparedness to hold early parliamentary elections in four months’ time.

But how many people in Macedonia will have heard this message and understand why the country finds itself on the receiving end of such a damning assessment?  

As in the past, the government, using its control over the media, will put its own gloss on the international community’s assessment and place the blame entirely on the shoulders of others, not least the opposition parties.

It will also point a finger at the EU itself, as reflected by the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party’s repeated insults of the EU mediator in recent weeks. The government’s tactics are clear - to show domestic public opinion that it is above suspicion.

Making every effort to bury the evidence of the wiretapped conversations, involving alleged corruption and abuse of power at the highest levels of government, is an integral part of this strategy.

That the ruling party has forced the Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry, established to examine the wiretapping claims, to hold its meetings in camera speaks volumes of the latter’s approach to transparency and government accountability. It is tantamount to an admission of guilt.

As part of the EU-brokered political agreement agreed in June/July, the early elections planned for 24 April were supposed to mark a turning point in the political fortunes of Macedonia and put an end to the corruption and authoritarian practices of past years.

The agreement stipulates that the Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski, should resign and make way for a new government to be installed by 15 January whose sole responsibility “shall be limited to the organisation of the early parliamentary elections”.

Unfortunately, there are no indications that the political leadership is ready for change. On the contrary. The ruling VMRO-DPMNE party and its leader, Gruevski, have made repeated efforts to undermine the political agreement by blocking compromise solutions.

Apart from the return to parliament by the opposition, ending its boycott of 14 months, and the appointment of a Special Prosecutor to investigate the wiretapping allegations, none of the deadlines established for implementation of the June/July political accord have been respected.  

In its “Needs Assessment Mission Report”, published on 27 November, the OSCE/ODIHR echoed many concerns about the level of preparedness for elections and the danger of the irregularities of the past elections being repeated.

Even if agreement is reached on the critical areas required to ensure a level playing field for the election, as on media freedom, control over the abuse of state resources and safeguards to prevent pressure on voters and intimidation of public servants, what guarantee is there that the rules will be respected?

Past experience, as well as evidence from the wiretapped conversations, has shown that no matter how many laws are adopted it makes no difference because the behaviour of the political leadership remains the same.

Previous elections have also shown that intimidation tactics are not limited to public servants, but also affect the business community. The government has not hesitated in the past to let loose its army of tax inspectors prior to elections to spread fear and intimidate businesses who fail to pay their dues or pledge their support for the ruling party.

The latest controversy over the destruction of a park in the grounds of the Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje to make way for two new faculty buildings is symptomatic of the government’s tactics, aimed at launching building projects in the run-up to elections and using state funds purely for electoral purposes.  

That this latest action was perpetrated under cover of darkness and without any prior consultation with the constituency most affected shows how this government continues to operate. Instead of promoting consensus between the political forces in the country and fostering inclusive dialogue, the government is adopting the language of confrontation and subterfuge.  

The only hope for Macedonia to emerge from this crisis is for the early elections to be postponed for at least three to six months.

The EU should make clear to the political leadership that, based on the record of the past weeks, holding elections in April would be counterproductive and not conducive to resolving the deeply rooted crisis - even if a delay means a prolongation of the current government’s mandate beyond the 15 January deadline.

A delay of three to six months would give more time for the OSCE/ODIHR recommendations, not least the long overdue updating of the voters list, as well as the reforms repeatedly called for by the EU, to be adopted and embedded in the electoral process. It would also give more confidence in the capacity of the newly appointed State Electoral Commission to function properly.

Ensuring impartial and balanced media coverage will require constant scrutiny by the EU together with the OSCE. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media has repeatedly warned the government over its lack of respect for media freedom and has urged respect for critical reporting without fear of intimidation, to which journalists have been subjected. The government’s attitude towards media freedom will not change overnight, no matter how many laws are adopted.

A delay in holding the elections will also allow the Special Prosecutor more time to launch her first indictments in the wiretapping scandal. It is inconceivable that almost a year has past since the first revelations of alleged corruption at the highest levels of government were made, and that no one has yet been held accountable.

Whether an election is deemed to fully respect internationally agreed democratic standards does not solely depend on what happens on election day but on the entire electoral process that precedes it.

If this election is to mean anything for Macedonia, it should mark the start of a long process of restoring democracy, public confidence in the democratic functioning of the institutions and a political leadership accountable to its people and answerable to the laws of the country rather than partisan politics. Above all, it should eliminate the climate of fear that has marked these past years and destroyed the hopes of many young people who have decided their only option is to leave.



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