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Local Election Leaves Macedonia Opposition in Tatters

March 26, 2013

In Sunday’s municipal voting, opposition parties suffered an unexpected debacle, winning significantly fewer votes than in 2011.

By Sinisa Jakov Marusic, Balkan Insight, 26.03.2013

 

Opposition leader Branko Crvenkovski | Photo by: Plus Info

The first round of local elections in Macedonia has sealed the dominance of the centre-right VMRO DPMNE party over its bitter political rivals, the Social Democrats, SDSM, led by Branko Crvenkovski.

While few doubted that Nikola Gruevski’s ruling party would win its seventh election in a row since 2006, the severity of the defeat of the opposition surprised many.

Some 288,000 people voted for the SDSM-led coalition on Sunday, according to the State Election Commission. This represents a marked drop from the 2011 early general elections, when the party and its allies won some 370,000 votes.

By contrast, VMRO DPMNE netted 403,000 votes on Sunday, just 20,000 less than its result in 2011.

“The SDSM in these elections accomplished far less than they initially said they would,” political analyst Saso Klekovski noted.

The opposition also lost some former bastions, like the northern town of Kumanovo, he added.

With no significant changes expected in the second round on April 7, the results guarantee that the ruling party will keep its overwhelmingly dominant position in the country’s 80 municipalities and in the capital, Skopje.

After the vote on Sunday, 51 out of 80 municipalities obtained mayors in the first round.

Of that figure, VMRO DPMNE won straight victories in 34 municipalities while the SDSM snatched only two.

The rest of the municipalities where voting is over went mainly to ethnic Albanian or independent candidates.

The second round in two weeks’ time will be staged only in 29 municipalities where no candidate gained over 50 per cent of the votes in the first round, and in the capital Skopje.

This will change little for the opposition as its candidates are leading only in seven municipalities, and in those only by slight margins.

The local elections came amid specific circumstances that most observers had previously predicted would work in favour of the opposition. However, this was not the case.

Many initially predicted that the mere fact that Gruevski has been in power since 2006, as well as the adverse effects of the global economic downturn, felt hard in Macedonia, would boost the opposition vote.

Photo by: OSCE/Thomas Rymer

Observers now say the election outcome was a result of a combination of rough tactics on the part of the government and a lack of clear concept on the part of the opposition, which failed to elaborate or sell its plan to the people.

“The campaign was unfair. It was a contest between a state and a political party, so it was unequal,” Mirjana Maleska, a political science professor at the South East European University in Tetovo, said.

“We had frequent cases of government ministers supporting the election campaign and we had media bias [in favour of the government],” she added.

Although polling day passed off without serious incidents, the head of the State Election Commission, DIK, Boris Kondarko, confirmed some allegations of irregularities.

“A large number of serious obstructions of the election process were present,” Kondarko said, adding that the commission was working to investigate them in more detail.

The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, ODIHR, delivered a generally positive preliminary report on Monday.

“At the same time, our mission received credible allegations of voter intimidation and misuse of state resources throughout the campaign,” the head of the monitoring mission, Geert Ahrens, told a press conference in Skopje.

The OSCE/ODIHR monitoring mission also noted that “partisan media coverage and the blurring of state and party activities did not always provide a level playing field” for competitors in the election.

But observers agree that irregularities and media bias are not solely to blame for the opposition defeat.

The opposition agreed to take part in the local vote only after the EU brokered a deal at the last minute with the government on March 1. The deal defused a major political crisis that started in December.

OSCE/ODIHR monitors have noted intimidation and misuse of state resources

The Social Democrats launched a boycott of parliament on December 24, after the government parties passed a budget for 2013 in only minutes, after opposition MPs and journalists were expelled from the chamber.

Months of opposition street protests followed as the party mobilized supporters and demanded early general elections to topple Gruevski’s government, which they called “totalitarian”.

But, along the way, observers say the opposition lost its focus on local issues, and, amid uncertainty over its participation in the election, lacked time to prepare an effective campaign.

The SDSM came out for the local vote with a campaign more fitted for snap general elections, observers say, trying to turn the vote into a referendum on the government.

“They were late with their campaign… and also lacked a concrete platform,” political analyst Kire Naumov said.

“They should have showed more clearly whose interests they are seeking to protect and articulate, how they are planning to accomplish their strivings to improve democratic freedoms and how they planned to allocate state resources,” Maleska said. “That is the main thing that differentiates social democratic from right-wing parties.”

On the other hand, the government was well prepared for the race, focusing on local issues, urging people to “Choose Deeds”.

After suffering a seventh successive election defeat, the second since their long-standing leader, Crvenkovski, resumed the helm in 2009, no one from the opposition was willing to comment officially.

“These elections have been everything, but not fair and democratic,” Crvenkovski told obviously disheartened supporters at a press conference after midnight on Sunday.

The opposition demanded early general elections to topple Gruevski’s government

“We have witnessed unseen blackmail and intimidation, irregularities in the election roll and misuse of state institutions.

“If there is no resolution of all irregularities, all scenarios are open, including one in which we boycott the second round,” Crvenkovski declared.

He insisted that the party had done well to obtain such “big support” under difficult circumstances.

By contrast, the atmosphere in the winning camp was one of exultation.

“The victory exceeded all our previous expectations,” Gruevski told a celebrating crowd on the night of the election.

Some believe it would be only fitting for the opposition leadership to resign after such a devastating blow, leaving space for thorough reforms and new leaders.

“I have been warning many times about such an election result,” the former SDSM head, Vlado Buckovski, said.

He was recently expelled from the party after claiming that the current leader was leading the opposition in the wrong direction.

“I do not know what more needs to happen for Crvenkovski to resign,” he added.

The next congress of the opposition, which will include a vote for the party leadership, is scheduled for May.

Meanwhile, the party secretary general, Andrej Petrov, on Monday downplayed his leader’s previous threats of a new boycott by urging people to go out and vote in the second round.

The elections and the overall political stability of the country in the coming months are seen as a test of the country’s focus on its EU integration agenda.

In December, the EU Council said that any decision on opening accession talks for Macedonia would be based on the next special report of the European Commission, due on April 16.

The report is tasked with assessing whether Macedonia has taken steps towards reaching a deal with Greece over its name, to which Athens objects, whether it has improved relations with Bulgaria and whether it has carried out reforms at home.

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