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News 03 Oct 17

Macedonian Capital's Mayoral Hopefuls Court Albanian Votes

In a bid to woo ethnic Albanian voters – who may tip the outcome of the approaching local elections in Macedonia – both main mayoral candidates for the capital, Skopje, are keeping a lid on divisive nationalist language.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
Elelctoral  billboards in Skopje. Photo: BIRN

As the two leading candidates for the post of Mayor of Skopje try to woo ethnic Albanian voters ahead of the vote on October 15, both are avoiding the kind of divisive ethnic language that marred last year's general elections.

In the campaign for the December 2016 early general elections, the then ruling VMRO DPMNE party went all out in accusing its main opponents in the Social Democrats, SDSM, of surrendering to ethnic Albanian demands.

This year, however, the party's mayoral candidate for Skopje has even fielded ethnic Albanian politician as party's municipal counselor.

In a clear attempt to circumvent his party's dismal reputation among many Albanians, VMRO DPMNE's Koce Trajanovski, now running for his third term, got support from his Albanian party colleague, Muhamed Ameti.

The two can be seen posing together on Albanian-language billboards that also contain the party's election slogan: "A new era begins for Skopje."

The billboards have been widely displayed in the mainly Albanian districts of Cair and Saraj in Skopje.

Koce Trajanovski [left] and Muhamed Ameti [right] posing together on Albanian-language billboards.

A source from Trajanovski's electoral camp confided to BIRN that the party was well aware that it needed to court more Albanian votes.

"In last year's elections, ethnic Albanian votes boosted the SDSM. But in these local elections that will be hard to replicate, as everyone can see that Trajanovski is a hard-working mayor, so we expect many Albanian votes," the source, insisting on anonymity, said.

Previously, the party made few attempts to appeal to Albanians, who make up about a quarter of the population, concentrated in the north and west of the country.

They also make up between 10 and 20 per cent of the population of Skopje – but these numbers are only approximate as no national census has taken place in years.

Even after its lost power nationally in May, VMRO DPMNE's leader, Nikola Gruevski, continued attacked a new proposed law allowing greater official use of the Albanian language. Gruevski insisted it would be unconstitutional and would undermine national unity.

However, while appearing on an Albanian-language TV station, Alsat, Gruevski earlier this month insisted that he had nothing against Albanians and vowed to work on improving the party's relations with the community.

Meanwhile, Trajanovski's strongest rival, Petre Silegov, from the SDSM, has an advantage when it comes to courting Albanian votes in the capital.

This party has a far better standing among Albanians thanks to its more "civic" approach. In the last general election, the SDSM won at least 40,000 Albanian votes, which was unprecedented for a mainly ethnic Macedonian party.

For the municipal vote, the SDSM has already secured the support in Skopje of the country's strongest ethnic Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI.

The DUI switched sides nationally in May, abandoning its coalition alliance with VMRO DPMNE and forging a new majority in parliament, which brought the SDSM to power.

In return for its support in Skopje, the SDSM has agreed to support DUI candidates in several mainly Albanian municipalities, such as Tetovo, Gostivar and Debar.

"We will build Skopje together, and for everyone, just as we have started building Macedonia," Silegov told ethnic Albanian residents of Saraj, near Skopje on Sunday, asking for their support.

Skopje political Analyst Albert Musliu said the noticeably milder nationalistic rhetoric in this election reflected the very different nature of national and local elections – in which different parties must cooperate to win in ethnically mixed areas.

"In many specific municipalities, one or the other ethnic community needs the votes of the others [to win the election]," Musliu noted.

For the purpose of the local elections, Macedonia is divided into 81 municipalities. The prize is, of course, Skopje, which is home to a third of Macedonia's population of about 2 million.

A total of eight mayoral candidates are standing in Skopje but Trajanovski and Silegov are the front runner, backed by the two main parties in the ethnic Macedonian political camp.

The election campaign started on September 25. It closes on October 13 when an electoral silence descends until polling day On October 15.

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