BALKAN BLOG: Why is it so difficult to set an election date in North Macedonia?

BALKAN BLOG: Why is it so difficult to set an election date in North Macedonia?
Zoran Zaev (right), leader of the ruling SDSM, wants an election in June to end the political crisis, but opposition VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski says it's safer to delay. Both have a strong case.
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje May 26, 2020

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic postponed snap general elections in North Macedonia, but now the situation is returning to normal, political parties cannot agree on an election date. Is June good for voting, or July or August? What’s the difference?

People are so frustrated after spending more than two months under lockdown measures which were imposed to prevent the spread of the novel virus (and most remain in place as of May 26), so who cares about elections except political parties?

What has been more interesting than the election, lately? Yes, the news that Muslim community leader effendi Sulejman Rexhepi got married (for the second time) just before Ramadan to a beautiful woman 50 years younger than him. By the way he is 74, so the Twitterati began comparing him to Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. The news briefly overshadowed political developments on social media. 

What else seems more gripping than the election? The fact the Health Minister Venko Filipce, who is a surgeon himself, was so happy after his colleagues successfully performed the first heart transplant in Skopje from a donor woman who died in a motorbike accident. Surgeons Sasko Jovev and Zan Mitrev, not to mention Filipce, have been in the media spotlight in recent days. Emilija Dineva, a donor who saved three lives, was buried on May 24. Her heart and kidneys were donated to patients. Ivan Ognjanovski, the man who will continue living with Ema's heart, is doing well. The Dinevi family from Star Dojran lost a wife and mother, while the Ognjanovski family got to keep their husband and father.

But life goes on… and the subject of elections will come back very soon.

Political calculations

The leader of the ruling Social Democrats (SDSM) Zoran Zaev, whose party came to power in May 2017, ending the 10-year regime of conservative VMRO-DPMNE, insists on quick elections in June to avoid an institutional and constitutional crisis.

But the opposition VMRO-DPMNE claims that the situation with the coronavirus is not yet under control, saying that the health of citizens is more important than elections. VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski wants the election to be held in August or September or July at the very earliest.

Some analysts see political calculations in setting an election date. For some, Zaev is seeking quick elections because his party is leading in the polls after the country became a Nato member and was invited to start EU negotiations after solving bilateral disputes with Greece and Bulgaria. Plus the health minister boosted the support for the ruling Social Democrats by appearing on news conferences providing detailed information in a calm manner almost every day since the start of the epidemic in March.

VMRO-DPMNE’s theory is that SDSM officials wants the elections now so they can benefit from lower turnout, because the conservatives believe people will be too afraid of the coronavirus to go out and cast their votes.

Zaev resigned at the beginning of this year and sought elections as he was angry because the European Commission postponed the decision to start enlargement negotiations with North Macedonia (and Albania) in October 2019. The Commission repaired the mistake in March by allowing the country to start accession talks with the negotiation framework expected in June.

Since January the country has been led by an interim government that includes members of VMRO-DPMNE. However, the parliament in Skopje was dissolved in February, with elections scheduled for April 12, but the coronavirus disrupted the plans.

Decisions are now being made through governmental and presidential decrees during the state of emergency without parliamentary approval, which raises questions about their validity.

One may wonder which is the stronger: Zaev’s argument for a speedy election or Mickoski’s for delay. I would say they are equally strong. The state cannot function without parliament and a newly elected government, but at the same time the election process can put the health of voters and organisers in danger.

Polls show more than 50% of the electorate are in favour of holding elections in August or September rather than June.

Although the situation with the coronavirus seemed to be slowly subsiding, the daily figures are surprising in negative terms as even two and half months after the virus appeared and a month after the peak of over 100 infected in one day, on May 20 the authorities registered 40 new infections and on May 24 there were 37 new cases. In the last week, the daily number of new infections only once dropped below 20.

At the beginning of the crisis, Filipce received strong support from citizens in dealing with the virus, and memes of him as Superman with messages 'Stay Home', 'Wash Your Hands' and 'Listen to Venko' appeared on social networks. 

The support for Filipce remains strong, but the reality is that North Macedonia did not manage to control the virus well. That does not mean it is a minister’s fault, rather it is about people not respecting social distancing measures. People do not take the virus so seriously after the measures were partially eased. Many believe that the virus is not so dangerous and it is all a global conspiracy. Some connect the virus with testing of 5G networks.

Religious disobedience 

There was a huge incident in the southwestern town of Struga on May 7 when hundreds of worshipers led by religious leaders walked through the streets during the religious holiday of St. Georgija despite the ban on gatherings of more than two.

Prosecutors launched a probe over the incident, and Filipce got very angry, saying that the measures are useless if people do not respect them.

The small country of 2mn ranks second in the region in terms of the number of infections per million inhabitants, after Serbia. Slovenia is in third place, a country which, although bordering the northern Italian region which was most affected by coronavirus, declared an end of the epidemic recently with nearly 1,470 cases, 107 deaths and only a few new cases reported in the past week.

North Macedonia, which is similar in population to Slovenia, has about 2,000 cases so far and over 110 deaths.

Recent data showed that in Serbia there are 1,555 people infected per million inhabitants, 913 in North Macedonia and 709 in Slovenia.

While countries in the region have lifted most of the lockdown restrictions and begun returning to normal life, North Macedonia imposed a 42-hour extended curfew for the weekend of May 24-26 and upcoming holidays to avoid spreading the infection.

On May 24 Macedonia celebrated the Day of Literacy, which is the day of the brothers Cyril and Methodius from Solun, who invented the glagolic alphabet on which the Cyrillic alphabet is based. A state delegation usually goes to the Vatican to mark this day, as St.Cyril was buried in Rome, but not this year due to the coronavirus.

Muslims mark the end of Ramadan, which is usually celebrated with mass prayers and family gatherings with lots of food and not to forget Turkish baklava, a sweet pastry with chopped nuts, after a month of fasting.

Filipce warned against mass gatherings on several occasions as they can be a source of infection. After the number of infected started to rise again recently following a slowdown, Filipce explained that there were about ten new infected people from one family which got the virus during a family event.

“The disease easily spreads during dinners and gatherings when in contact with someone who is unaware that he is infected with the virus. Unfortunately in the past period, it has been proven that only strict restrictive measures give results,” said Filipce.

Ruling party ready for vote in June

Political parties have another week to reach a consensus on the election date, as the state of emergency ends at the end of May, after which the clock will start running down to the election deadlines, according to government officials.

“Elections should be held 22 days after the end of the state of emergency. I am regretful that we are the only country in the world without a functioning parliament," said caretaker Prime Minister Oliver Spasovski.

Spasovski noted that if North Macedonia had a functioning parliament, then the elections could have been postponed. The SDSM called on parliament speaker Talat Xhaferi from the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) to convene a session, but he refused to do so.

Filipce believes that the situation for holding the election is more favourable now, as restrictions on movement of citizens are still in place, while kindergartens, schools and the borders are closed.

All these factors, plus the usual seasonal flu, can significantly complicate the situation in the autumn, said Filipce, who expects a new wave of the virus later in the year.

As the two political rivals confront each other, the French ambassador in Skopje, Christian Thimonier, told daily Vecer that things should not be dramatised because talks between the parties continue. However, he stressed that what is the most important is the health of citizens and secondly the establishment of a legitimate parliament.

“But let's not be naive: there are political calculations about the date, so it is believed that a faster or later date will be beneficial or will harm one or the other party,” said Thimonier.

While in North Macedonia it is difficult to set an election date in these conditions, many other countries have done so.

Serbia has elections on June 21 after they were postponed in April and Croatia has scheduled elections for July 12. Poland planned a postal vote-only election earlier this month, but cancelled it at the last minute, and the government is now aiming for an election in late June. 

Bosnia & Herzegovina set local elections for October 4, but recently postponed them until November. 

Kosovo operates with an interim government, but the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), the junior partner in the previous government, has attempted to form a new cabinet, as the president and most political parties do not want new elections mid-pandemic and less than a year after the previous vote.

France has scheduled a second round of elections on June 28 after holding the first round on March 15, but postponed the second round scheduled for March 22 due to the coronavirus.

When the election will take place in North Macedonia remains to be decided in the coming days. The expectation is that the parties will reach a consensus on an election date, but a boycott by VMRO-DPMNE is possible if the SDSM schedules elections in June without the consent of the opposition party.

However, for most citizens, the most important thing is to recover from the economic consequences of the pandemic and lockdown, to survive the crisis and return to work. For others the priority is for the state of emergency to end, the curfew to be lifted and cafes, restaurants and not to forget casinos to restart working, because for Macedonians, socialising is one of the most important things in life. Voting is not a priority now, people say, let the parties decide it among themselves.