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News 29 Oct 17

Macedonia’s Albanian Parties Battle for Electoral Supremacy

The second round of the Macedonian local elections on Sunday will see ethnic Albanian parties compete for dominance and the opposition VMRO DPMNE defend its last remaining strongholds.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
 Photo: MIA

The second round of voting on Sunday won’t change the big picture from the first round, at which the main ruling Social Democrats, SDSM, won a big victory over their bitter opponents from the opposition right-wing VMRO DPMNE party - but the contest in the ethnic Albanian bloc is expected to be a lot more exciting.

The voting will take place in 35 out of Macedonia’s 81 municipalities. The others chose their mayors in the first round on October 15, when one of the candidates reached the threshold of 50 per cent of votes.

Twenty municipalities will see a direct confrontation between mayoral candidates from the SDSM and VMRO DPMNE. In 14 of them, the SDSM secured a lead in the first round while in six, VMRO DPMNE won more votes.

In 13 municipalities, mostly concentrated in the country’s north west, the contest will be waged between candidates from the Albanian bloc, while independent, non-partisan candidates have the upper hand in two places.

Nail-biting contest in Albanian-dominated areas

The contest in the Albanian-dominated areas will be waged primarily between two coalitions.

The biggest Albanian party in the country, the junior ruling Democratic Union for Integration, DUI secured a convincing lead in the first round in most of these municipalities. The DUI, led by Ali Ahmeti, is backed in these areas by its senior government partner, the SDSM.

But a coalition made after the first round between another junior ruling party, the Alliance for Albanians and the opposition BESA movement is now seriously threatening the DUI’s dominance. During the first round in most of the Albanian areas, these two parties' combined votes either matched or exceeded the number of votes won by the DUI.

Such was the case in the north-western town of Tetovo, seen as the main prize in the Albanian bloc, as well as in the towns of Gostivar and Debar and in Skopje’s municipality of Cair.

An exception is the south-western town of Struga where the Alliance for Albanians secured a firm lead in the first round over the DUI. However, the DUI hopes to turn the tide there with the help of a fresh batch of ethnic Macedonian votes coming from SDSM supporters who, unlike in other Albanian-dominated areas, had their own candidate in the first round and did not vote for the DUI.

Photo: MIA

While the DUI faces the possibility of losing its dominace over Albanian-led municipalities, the stakes are equaly high for its challengers from the Alliance for Albanians and BESA, whose leaders are competing in the contest.

Zijadin Sela, the head of the Alliance, is running for a second term in office in Struga against Ramiz Merko from DUI, while Bilal Kasami from the BESA movement is running for the mayoral seat in Tetovo against the DUI's incumbent mayor Teuta Arifi.

SDSM and VMRO DPMNE face-off in Stip

The face-off between main ruling SDSM of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and the opposition VMRO DPMNE led by Nikola Gruevski largely ended in the first round with a clear victory for the ruling party.

After almost a decade of VMRO DPMNE dominance on the local level, the party lost almost all of its former strongholds to the SDSM.

The SDSM has already won the mayoral races in 37 municipalities, and the VMRO DPMNE won in the first round only in three rural areas near Skopje. The SDSM sealed the victory with a mayoral seat in the capital Skopje, the main prize in these elections.

The only major ethnic Macedonian-dominated town that did not choose a mayor in the first round is the eastern town of Stip, a former VMRO DPMNE stronghold.

The contest there is expected to be the most thrilling as incumbent mayor Ilco Zahariev, from the ranks of VMRO DPMNE, has only a slight lead of 35 votes against his opponent from the SDSM, Blagoj Bocvarski. 

While the VMRO DPMNE is mobilising to defend its last major stronghold, the SDSM hopes to capitalise on its overall tide of victories across Macedonia to win even greater support in the second round.

According to most political observers, the winner in Stip may be decided by the town's considerable Roma population.

The wins so far at the local polls, which are being held just four months after the election of the new SDSM-led government in May, are being seen as a big boost for the new Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and his pro-Western agenda for democratisation of the country.

The shock defeat for the right-wing VMRO DPMNE, which was previously in power for 11 years, threatens to end the political career of its long-standing leader and former Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski who, after calling the elections a referendum on his possible return to power, conceded defeat while complaining of many irregularities.

Gruevski, who is facing criminal investigations related to his party’s 11 years in office, as well as calls to step down from within his party, declined to say whether he would resign.

Preliminary results from the second round of voting are expected late on Sunday and on Monday.

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