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News 09 Oct 17

Tensions With BESA Threaten Macedonia's Social Democrats

Ahead of the October 15 local elections in Macedonia, the second largest ethnic Albanian party, BESA, has warned Prime Minister Zoran Zaev he risks losing their general support.

BESA meeting in Studenicani. Photo: MIA

Macedonia's main ruling party, the Social Democrats, and the ethnic Albanian BESA party have exchanged a series of mutual accusations and warnings.

The dispute erupted after the Social Democrats, the SDSM, decided to openly support BESA's bitter Albanian rivals in the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, in the October 15 local elections.

Relations dipped sharply after the Prime Minister and SDSM leader Zoran Zaev visited the Albanian bastion of Tetovo on Thursday, where he expressed support for the DUI's mayoral candidate.

During his visit, BESA activists staged a protest against what they call the unprincipled alliance between the SDSM and the DUI for the local elections.

In response, Zaev accused BESA of secretly "playing for the VMRO DPMNE team", referring to the former ruling party ousted from power in May.
"We are not playing for any team except for the interests of the Albanians as we are their strongest representatives. We advise Zaev to be more careful in future because he might lose Albanian support," a senior BESA representative told BIRN on Friday.

During the talks on the formation of Zaev's new government, which was elected in May, the SDSM turned to the DUI, which had 10 seats in parliament, and the role of kingmaker.

This was despite the fact that the DUI had participated for eight years in the former coalition government led by VMRO DPMNE, which was widely accused of authoritarianism and corruption.

Talks failed between the SDSM and BESA, which held five MPs' seats, despite many seeing them as more natural allies.

In the run-up to last year's general elections, they shared the same goal of ousting the VMRO DPMNE-led government from power.
However, BESA, with its five MPs, still remains an important partner for Zaev. Even with the support of the DUI and the Alliance for Albanians, he still has only a bare majority of one or two in parliament - with 62 of the 120 MPs.

Despite not joining the government, BESA said it would in principle support the new government's promised reforms following 11 years of VMRO DPMNE rule.

But BESA's support for the government is now in question over the SDSM's mutual deals with the DUI in some municipalities.

The DUI, for example, is supporting the SDSM mayoral candidate in the capital, Skopje. In return, the SDSM is supporting DUI candidates in several Albanian strongholds such as Tetovo, Gostivar and Debar.

This alliance has boosted the DUI's chance of winning in those areas where it is up against BESA candidates.

"We have nothing in principle against BESA and its just fight for dominance among Albanian voters. But we still like to believe that we share some things in common with BESA and that our future cooperation with them in parliament will not be affected," a source close to the SDSM leadership told BIRN.

However, "our decision to support our government partners [in the DUI for the local polls] has been made, and we stand by it," the same source said.
Fighting for dominance in the ethnic Albanian bloc, BESA has accused the DUI of  presiding over various wrongdoings during its eight-year alliance with VMRO DPMNE. It is visibly unhappy that this party is still in power.

Mending ties with BESA might prove crucial for Zaev in future. Some oppinion polls carried out ahead of the local elections suggest that BESA is closing in on the DUI's lead in terms of popularity.

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