SKOPJE – The 15 July 2020 early parliamentary elections were generally administered effectively amid adjustments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but legal stability was undermined by substantial revisions to the Electoral Code and subsequent ad hoc regulations enacted during the state of emergency, reads the preliminary findings report released by OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Special Election Assessment Mission (ODIHR SEAM) on Thursday.
According to OSCE, the campaign, although negative in tone, was genuinely competitive and participants could deliver their messages despite limitations on traditional outreach. Media coverage of the elections lacked critical assessment of platforms and provisions regarding paid political advertisement favoured the three largest parties.
“Numerous debates and talk-shows were mainly used by the contestants as platforms for mutual personal criticism. The newscasts of all national broadcasters monitored by the ODIHR SEAM provided superficial coverage of the campaign activities, which was overshadowed by mutual accusations as well as by implications of the published recordings of political leaders. In-depth analytical reporting or policy-based discussions were largely absent from the coverage of the campaign, limiting the opportunity for voters to make an informed choice between distinct policy alternatives”, ODIHR noted.
In their prime-time newscasts focused on the VMRO-DPMNE and the SDSM-led coalitions, two national private broadcasters, Sitel and Telma, provided each with equal proportions of, respectively, 31 and 21 per cent of politically relevant coverage, mainly neutral in tone, the report found. Kanal 5, Alfa TV and Alsat were found to have had a more biased reporting towards different parties. All ODIHR SEAM interlocutors assessed that significant improvements in media freedoms in recent years were not reinforced by systematic reforms in the media sector
Legal changes on the eve of the election contrary to good practice
The elections were conducted under a legal framework which was substantially amended on the eve of the announcement of the elections, contrary to international good practice, the report stresses. Amendments introduced into the Electoral Code in February 2020 partially addressed some ODIHR recommendations on issues such as voter registration, transparency of election dispute resolution, deadlines for campaign finance reporting, and campaign oversight. Still, most ODIHR recommendations remain unaddressed.
When it comes to the work of the State Electoral Commission (SEC), ODIHR SEAM interlocutors generally expressed satisfaction with its effectiveness, though some questioned the partisan structure of the commission.
Many ODIHR SEAM interlocutors raised concerns regarding the accuracy of the voter list, generally positing that the number of registered voters exceeds the number of citizens with permanent residence, thereby inflating the abstention rate.
Political parties reported to the ODIHR SEAM cases of pressure on public officials, especially in the west of the country, including on police. In the last days before the elections there were several allegations of vote-buying in different parts of the country, involving socially vulnerable people, especially in the Roma community, and local prosecutors opened investigations.
The ODIHR SEAM also received reports of vote-buying in different regions of the country, both in the days before and on election day, especially among the Roma community.