European Western Balkans

Has the election process in North Macedonia improved?

ODIHR observers visit a polling station in Skopje during North Macedonia's presidential election, 21 April 2019; Photo: OSCE

Only six years ago, holding free and fair elections was the most contentious political issue in North Macedonia – following the 2014 parliamentary and presidential elections, then opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) announced that the party and its coalition would not recognize the results of either the elections, accusing the VMRO-DPMNE of “abusing the entire state system with threats and blackmail and the massive buying of voters.”

Fast-forward to 2020 and, although there are still complaints and accusations of unfair practices, this time coming from VMRO-DPMNE and other parties who have been in opposition for the past three years, there are no indications that a serious crisis over the results of the election on 15 July will emerge. Analysts and observes, including ODIHR, are indeed under the impression that the process has improved.

“Early parliamentary election in North Macedonia has been administered quite well compared to previous election cycles in the country but also taking into consideration regional trends and dynamics”, says Ivan Stefanovski, Executive Director of Eurothink, a Skopje-based think-tank.

He stresses that no systemic vote-buying, coercion, or pressures had been reported as in the past, although he believes that the inability of the State Electoral Commission (SEC) to report on election results timely is a sign that institutions are still vulnerable and their capacity generally limited.

During the election night, SEC’s live results monitoring website crashed, preventing the citizens to follow the results of the voting as they came in. SEC confirmed to ODIHR Mission on 21 July that the relevant institutions are looking into the case, while on the election night itself it was assumed that a hacker attack had taken place.

Nevertheless, SEC President Oliver said that the attack had not caused problems with the vote count, as the data collection application was not attacked in any way.

Formal complaints submitted, though mostly not by the major parties

According to Aleksandar Kržalovski, Executive Director of the Macedonian Center for International Cooperation, the 2020 election day went very well, with only minor problems and misunderstanding, rather than irregularities.

“It seems that the results are rather clear and not disputable among major actors – SDSM, VMRO-DPMNE and DUI”, Kržalovski says for European Western Balkans.

He adds that all in all, it was a usual election atmosphere, with usual campaign activities which included some irregularities, though it seems on a quite smaller scale than before.

Kržalovski reminds that the main opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE, has publicly talked about irregularities, including before the election day but it only filed two complaints, one for a manual recount of all votes, which were rejected.

On the other hand, two parties/coalitions that won seats in the new Parliament, the Left (Levica) and the Alliance for Albanians-Alternative submitted a much larger number of complaints.

“Alliance submitted over 70 formal complaints of “filling ballot boxes”, which are seemingly justified, as average turnout among this population of around 33%, while in disputed polling stations, turnout is 80 or even 90%. New party in the Parliament, Levica, also filed almost 2,000 complaints, more in a media-attention effort, than real complaints (as they were all with the same text and had formal errors in most of them). SEC turned down all their complaints and both announced filing Court cases”, Kržalovski says.

On 23 July, the Administrative Court rejected all complaints by Alliance-Alternative coalition.

Given the very small difference in the number of votes and the MPs between the two biggest parties – SDSM-led coalition has won only two seats more than VMRO-DPMNE – as well as the close result between the ethnic Albanian parties, with DUI winning 15 seats and Alliance-Alternative 12, upholding of even a small number of complaints may lead to a change in the electoral mathematics.

This, Kržalovski reminds, is not very likely, even less so now that the Court has already rejected a part of the complaints. Even without the additional complaints, it seems that the government formation process will be complicated, despite the fact that the former coalition partners, SDSM and DUI, together have the exact number of seats for a working majority – 61.

Parliament of North Macedonia; Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“Election results were rather close, but this was fully within the realm of the expected, looking back at the polls throughout the last several months before the elections. At the moment, all coalition combinations are possible, and no scenario should and can be excluded. What is currently important for Macedonian society is the formation of a stable government that will immediately conduct the needed preparations for the forthcoming accession negotiations to the EU”, says Ivan Stefanovski.

Even though VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski said that his party will also try to form a ruling coalition, it is expected that Zoran Zaev will first have an opportunity to form his second government by the end of the summer.

Has ODIHR’s noticed an improvement?

In 2014, OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) noted several serious shortcomings of the election process, including persistent allegations of voter intimidation and blurring of the line between state and party activities.

ODIHR also noted that the majority of monitored media was largely biased in favour of one ruling VMRO-DPMNE and its presidential candidate and mainly negative against the main opposition party and its candidate.

“The public broadcaster did not provide balanced and equal coverage to all candidates and parties, thus challenging paragraph 7.8 of the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document”, the report on the 2014 presidential and parliamentary elections stresses.

In 2020, there is at least one area in which the situation seems to have improved, though more work is needed, according to ODIHR.

“All ODIHR Special Election Assessment Mission interlocutors assessed that significant improvements in media freedoms in recent years were not reinforced by systematic reforms in the media sector, such as ensuring the political neutrality of the public Macedonian Radio and Television (MRT) and the media regulator”, the preliminary report reads.

The ODIHR SEAM also noted isolated cases of ministers from different parties blurring their state functions and political activities, while claims were also made by opposition parties of attempts to politically capitalize on social welfare programmes, though this has not been proven.

“Political parties also 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”, ODIHR SEAM reported.

The final report will be released in the following weeks when perhaps a better picture of how far the country has come since the recent electoral and political crisis.

What is at least encouraging is the fact that 2015 Pržino agreement was once again implemented – a transitional government with the aim of preparing fair elections was set up this year as well, with VMRO-DPMNE getting ministerial positions. As noted earlier, no major party is seriously challenging the results this time around.

“Of course, 100% free and fair elections do not exist even in theory. Therefore, it is of utmost importance for countries in the Western Balkans to strive towards international standards and commitments in terms of democratization and protection of human rights”, Ivan Stefanovski concludes for EWB.

This article was published as part of the project “Civil society for good governance and anti-corruption in southeast Europe: Capacity building for monitoring, advocacy and awareness-raising (SELDI)” funded by the European Union.

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