North Macedonia went to the polls on July 15 for early parliamentary elections. Originally scheduled to be held on April 12 but then postponed because of the outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, these elections were very important and significant as they were the first general elections since the Prespa Agreement that constitutionally changed the name of the country, and since North Macedonia joined NATO and was invited to commence EU accession negotiations earlier this year. The 20-day election campaign proceeded under strict safety protocols that prohibited large rallies and allowed only small group meetings; as a result, this electoral campaign was the most digital to-date.

The main contenders on the ethnic Macedonian camp was a coalition of the center-left communist successor party SDSM with the small center-right Albanian party BESA (the “We Can” coalition) on the one hand, and the far-right nationalist party VMRO-DPMNE on the other. The SDSM-BESA coalition was in itself unprecedented as never before in 30 years of pluralism in North Macedonia had a Macedonian party entered a pre-electoral coalition with an Albanian party. Displaying its multi-ethnic agenda with this pre-electoral coalition, SDSM ran on a platform that promised the continuation and strengthening of its previous reforms in economy, EU integration and fight against corruption. VMRO, on the other hand, ran on the slogan “Renewal of Macedonia”, stressing the need for a fresh approach to the economy, and most importantly, lambasting SDSM for having signed the Prespa Agreement, which according to VMRO was a capitulation to Greece and erased the entire pre-1945 history and identity of the Macedonian people.

The electoral landscape on the Albanian camp featured on the one side the dominant Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), which, with the exception of a short interval of two years (2006-2008), had been uninterruptedly in power (as junior coalition partner of a Macedonian party) in the post-2001 period, and on the other side, a coalition of two splinter Albanian parties (the Alliance for Albanians (ASH) and the Alternative (A)) that ran on a strongly anti-corruption platform and promised to democratize the Albanian camp by dislodging BDI from power after 16 years of incumbency.

Again, quite unprecedentedly, BDI ran in these elections pledging the election for the first time of an Albanian prime minister and even put forward its candidate for such a post: Naser Ziberi, deputy prime minister back in the 1990s (1994-1998) during SDSM’s coalition government with the then main Albanian party, Party for Democratic Prosperity. Despite being highly desirable in itself for every Albanian in North Macedonia, BDI’s electoral pledge of the first Albanian prime minister represented more a strategy to divert attention from the party’s past mischiefs (corruption and state capture) than a realistic commitment on its part. First, it is unlikely that either SDSM or VMRO will concede to such a demand. Second and more important, even if somehow BDI manages to convince either of the Macedonian parties to support such an option, a prime minister who does not come from the party with the plurality/majority in parliament is likely to be only a figurehead whom the parties that nominate him can use at their wishes.

Finally, the three small Turkish parties in North Macedonia as always availed themselves of both mainstream Macedonian parties to compete in these elections. Two of them, Turkish Democratic Party (TDP) led by Beycan İlyas and Turkish Movement Party (THP) led by Enes Ibrahim, became part of the “We Can” pre-electoral coalition with SDSM and BESA. The third, Turkish National Unity Party (TMBH), led by the veteran politician Erdogan Sarac, was left no option but to ally with VMRO. It is perhaps simply to legitimize this alliance choice that, despite fully endorsing the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration, TMBH rhetorically has supported VMRO in rejecting the Prespa Agreement and it considers the change of the country’s name as constitutional given that the referendum on this issue (held in September 2018) technically failed. Still, TMBH’s main electoral slogan in these elections “Biz Türkiye’yleyiz, Türkiye Bizimle” (We are with Turkey, Turkey is with us) is hard to reconcile with its support for VMRO.

Ambivalent results

As expected, the elections returned tight results for both the main ethnic camps in the country. With a 51.34-per cent turnout rate (significantly lower than the 66-per cent turnout in the last general elections in 2016), the SDSM-BESA coalition came ahead of VMRO with a razor-thin plurality, taking 35.89 per cent of the vote and 46 of the 120 parliamentary seats, versus VMRO’s 34.57 per cent and 44 seats. Likewise, in the neck-and-neck race on the Albanian side, BDI managed to capture 15 seats by 11.48 per cent of the vote, while the ASH-A coalition took 8.95 per cent of the vote and 12 seats. Two small parties captured the remaining three seats – the far-left Levica (Left), formed by former SDSM members who broke away from the party over its strongly pro-NATO/pro-Western stance, won 2 seats, while the Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSH), one of the two main Albanian parties throughout the 1990s and early 2000s but decimated after its former influential member Ziadin Sela broke away to form the ASH in 2015, took only one seat. On a cumulative scale, 33 Albanians were elected in this general election, but they are distributed among 4 different parties/coalitions. Still, this result is unprecedented in 30 years of pluralism in North Macedonia where the number of elected Albanian deputies was at most 25.

Taken together, the ambivalent election results reflect two main patterns.

First, even though SDSM came ahead of VMRO, it did so only in coalition with the Albanian BESA, which won 4 of the total 46 seats the coalition took, and SDSM had another Albanian elected from within the party itself, the SDSM deputy chairman Muhamed Zekiri. In other words, within the ethnic Macedonian camp, VMRO is about 5 seats ahead of SDSM. These results, which are very similar to the ones obtained in the last election of 2016 and in the 2018 name referendum, clearly reflect the concerning trend that VMRO’s radical nationalist vision of ancient nationhood and its anti-Western and pro-Russian stance enjoy (slightly) more support among the ethnic Macedonian electorate than SDSM’s multi-ethnic, reformist and pro-Western agenda.

Second, BDI managed not only to preserve its dominant position within the Albanian camp, but also significantly increased its vote percentage and seats compared to the 2016 election (it won 5 more seats compared to 2016). Apparently, despite ASH-A’s complaints of huge electoral irregularities, BDI’s pledge of the first Albanian prime minister paid off handsomely, but the concerning trend here is that BDI’s increased strength does not bode well for the country’s future fight against corruption and state capture, the two most pressing problems North Macedonia (and all Balkan countries in general) faces in its path toward EU membership.

Finally, nothing actually changed as far as the small Turkish minority is concerned. TDP and THP each succeeded in electing their respective party leaders, Beycan Ilyas and Enes Ibrahim, on SDSM ticket, while all the three TMBH candidates running on VMRO ticket (Erdogan Sarac, Furkan Cako, and Tahsin Ibrahim) failed to get elected. Apparently, Turkish voters punished TMBH for its alliance with VMRO. Overall, with only two elected deputies out of 120 (1.6 per cent), Turks in North Macedonia (who make up 3.85 per cent of the population) continue to be descriptively underrepresented, but substantively they have much more ethno-linguistic rights than their politically powerful ethnic kin in neighboring Bulgaria.

Three different scenarios for the future coalition government

As is always the case in North Macedonia, coalition negotiations will likely be lengthy and protracted. Three different scenarios are mathematically possible and they have different implications for the country’s future. The first and most likely scenario is for the winners in the Macedonian and Albanian camps (i.e. SDSM and BDI) to come together and form a coalition. The feasibility of such an option, though, will depend on BESA’s willingness to team up with BDI (given that BESA is the antithesis of BDI on every aspect) and on BDI’s commitment to fulfill its pledge of the first Albanian prime minister. Concerning the implications of such an option for the country’s EU path, BDI presence in power, as already stated above, will diminish the chances of any meaningful reform in the struggle for rule of law and in the fight against rampant corruption and state capture.

The second scenario is for the SDSM-BESA coalition to team up with the ASH-A coalition, the far-left Levica, and PDSH. While certainly desirable in terms of bringing together two pro-Western, reformist coalitions, the barriers to such an option will be more difficult to surmount compared to the first. First and foremost, it is unlikely that BDI will tolerate being left out of any governing coalition given that it is the winner in the Albanian camp. Second, it will likewise be difficult to convince the extremist far-left Levica to participate in a pro-Western, reformist coalition government. The third/final and least likely option is for VMRO to form a coalition with BDI, Levica and PDSH. This is also the worst-case scenario in terms of its implications for the country’s Euro-Atlantic future, keeping in mind that during their previous eight years of uninterrupted incumbency (2008-2016), VMRO and BDI indulged in rampant corruption, state capture and the country’s Euro-Atlantic path was reversed by VMRO’s pro-Russian stance and its ancient nationhood project (that reached its peak with the extravagant Skopje 2014 urban renewal project). For this reason, there is going to be strong international pressure for this option not to take off.

To sum up, unless SDSM-BESA and BDI manage somehow to team up (i.e. the first scenario discussed above), snap parliamentary elections can likely follow. On the other hand, even if SDSM-BESA-BDI coalition government takes off, the prospects for meaningful reforms in the future are dim, given BDI’s presence and the coalition’s razor-thin majority.

[ The writer is a scholar of comparative politics of ethnicity and nationalism, with a regional focus on Balkan/Southeast European countries. He received his PhD in Political Science from Koç University. His articles have been published in leading area studies journals, such as Mediterranean Politics ]

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency

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