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comment 21 Jan 16

The EU Must Oppose April Elections in Macedonia

Decision to press on with early polls, against all expert advice, proves that the government has no interest in a fair vote.

Erwan Fouere
BIRN
Ohrid

Erwan Fouere | Photo by: Robert Atanasovski

The decision by the Macedonian parliament on the eve of Orthodox Epiphany to accept the resignation of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and call for the dissolution of parliament in preparation for early elections in April marks a further escalation in the crisis that has gripped the country.

This decision was taken despite the advice of independent electoral experts, 70 civil society organisations and the State Electoral Commission that not all the necessary reforms to ensure an election free from the irregularities of the past would be in place by April. This is particularly the case with regard to the long-awaited vetting of the voters’ list.

Parliament’s decision comes just three days after the latest visit of Commissioner Johannes Hahn, who, together with a delegation from the European Parliament, negotiated the June/July political agreement of last year.

It is worth recalling that this agreement was aimed at restoring the rule of law in Macedonia, following serious allegations of criminal activities and abuse of power by senior government and ruling VMRO-DPMNE party officials.

It also provided for the holding of early elections in April 2016, a date deemed even then as too early by the independent experts, if all the necessary electoral reforms that would guarantee an electoral process in accordance with accepted international standards were to be in place.

Sadly, the objective of restoring the rule of law seems to have been forgotten. The ambiguous statement by Commissioner Hahn following his meeting with political leaders on January 15 raised more questions than answers. It gave the impression that, for the EU, the three political parties in favour of April elections were on the right track, and that the opposition Social Democratic Party should join them.

The Commissioner’s office issued a clarifying statement subsequently, which underlined that “the essence and content of the political process stemming from the political agreement is more important than a dogmatic approach to election date”. It suggested that the political leaders should agree on another date to ensure that all political parties take part.

Unfortunately, it was too late. The dye was already cast on Friday evening. The defiant statement by the Prime Minister following the talks showed that the ruling party was more determined than ever to take control of the process and push for a decision by parliament to hold elections on April 24, regardless of the opposition party’s standpoint.

This dramatic turn of events is clearly a failure for European Union diplomacy and again shows a lack of appreciation by the European Commission of the depth of the political and social crisis in Macedonia. It also makes the patient efforts of the EU facilitator Peter VanHoutte to foster consensus talks between all the political parties all the more difficult.

It has been suggested that a deal has been made between the European Commission and the government, which would include commitments by the latter for increased efforts in managing the flow of refugees as well as moves to solve the long-standing name dispute with Greece in return for EU support for an April election date.

While these suggestions appear far-fetched and hardly credible, especially since the refugee crisis has no impact on Macedonia’s domestic politics, it would not be the first time that the ruling party has sought to make deals with the EU.

In 2009, the European Commission gave an unconditional recommendation for a date to be set for accession negotiations on the understanding that the government would devote its efforts to resolving the name issue, following Papandreou’s election as Prime Minister of Greece the same year. In the end it was an empty promise and an opportunity lost.

The EU cannot be fooled by such approaches from a government whose sole objective is to divert attention from its abuse of power, alleged criminal activities and repeated failures to address the many urgent reforms which the country so desperately needs - which are reflected in European Commission reports.

In view of the delays in the long promised electoral reforms, the lack of any follow-up by the government on the long list of urgent reforms set out by the European Commission which form part of the June/July political agreement, and the repeated efforts by the ruling party to undermine the work of the Special Prosecutor to investigate the wiretapping scandal, for the EU to allow the elections to take place on 24 April would further undermine its credibility and its efforts to resolve the political crisis.

Elections without the participation of the opposition party would be illegitimate and be further proof that the international community allows Macedonia to be ruled by a party that prioritises the rule of the jungle over the rule of law.

There can be no alternative for the EU but to use the intervening period between now and February 24, when parliament is to be dissolved to make way for the elections in April, to force the ruling party to accept a delay in the elections. Parliament should use its authority to postpone the elections to a later date.

This would ensure that all the electoral reforms and the proper conditions are in place to enable all the political parties without exception to take part in the electoral process, free from the intimidation and irregularities that have characterised so many past elections.

It goes without saying that effective, daily monitoring by both the EU, the US and other members of the international community as well as the OSCE on the ground will be essential to ensure that the ruling party and government-controlled media do not resort to the harassment and intimidation used in the past to manipulate the electoral process.

The people of Macedonia have suffered long enough as it is from a regime that governs by its own rules and considers that it alone knows what is best. The time for change and a return to democracy is long past.

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