Social and political context
Two factors broadly defined the general socio-political context in which the elections took place in North Macedonia on the 15th of July. The first and obvious one is the corona virus crisis and the escalating number of new infected cases and deaths. During the period between May and July, North Macedonia was on a continually increasing trend, becoming one of the European countries with the highest rate of cases of infected people. The second factor is the one that triggered the elections in the first place: the issue of opening European Union membership negotiations. Namely, after the French 'veto' on the membership negotiations during the EU Summit of October 2019, acting Prime Minister Zaev decided to opt for early elections to renew his legitimacy and support. In the meantime, the French President Macron changed his position, and the EU-Western Balkans summit reintroduced the prospect of negotiations in May 2020.
Artan Sadiku is a philosopher and political activist from Skopje, Macedonia
At the same token, these were the first general elections that were organised after the government led by Zoran Zaev signed the Prespa Agreement with then Greek Prime Minister Tsipras. This agreement led to a formal change of the country's name to North Macedonia, subsequent NATO membership and lifting of Greece's unofficial veto for the membership negotiations. The incumbent party SDSM (Social Democratic Union of Macedonia) claimed these two successes as their own. However, the name change generated a social climate marked by significant internal tensions.
In the ten years of Nikola Gruevski's conservative and authoritarian government rule between 2006-2016, the Macedonian society became sharply divided between his supporters and his opponents. This divide did not only include ordinary citizens but also media, academia, civil society, art and cultural scene and even sports. The conservatives and progressives demonstrated sharp differences to their approach towards nationalism, religion, history and the vision for the future of the country. During the negotiations process for the Prespa Agreement, the divide between the two already estranged groups deepened.
Because of that, the elections took place in a decisively tense social context, which determined the nature of the campaign. The election campaign was primarily negative; it focused on blaming and discrediting the political opponents. With this as a background, still, every running political party neglected two significant aspects of social and economic life in the country. The first one is the handling of the coronavirus crisis and the second, the economic consequences posed by it. Such an irresponsible, political behaviour in a sensitive social context unmasked the bare thirst for power of the ruling elites. Consequently, the two main political parties – SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE achieved the worst electoral results in decades.
Parties, politics and campaign
The social democratic party (SDSM) is one of the two major parties in North Macedonia. It gained power in 2016, due to major support from the civil society actors and a significant part of the international community. SDSM pursued a liberal cultural agenda that aimed to create a more positive and progressive image for itself. During its three years in power, ethnic tensions, which are a major political feature of the country, eased and no major incident occurred. With the support of the government, the first LGBTQ pride parade in the history of the country was organised. At the same time, almost every major state institution implemented a campaign named "One Society for All," which aimed at integrating minorities. At the same time, the government cancelled the controversial Skopje2014 project and supported new contemporary art and cultural initiatives.
Furthermore, the party recruited a broader social base from the progressive forces. Ruling Social Democrats managed to refresh their cadres with new people that stemmed from the civil society and were active for many years in organising against the Gruevski government. The crossing over from the non-governmental to the governmental sector by several civil society activists and the support of NGOs for the new government policies resembled a co-optation of the civil society by the SDSM government. While several groups, organisations and activists remained politically active, the general image of the non-governmental sector in the eyes of the wider society and citizens became that of enmeshment with the government.
In the very first days of his 2016 government, Zoran Zaev made it clear that the major focus of his term will be the foreign policy: pursuing de-blocking of country's EU and of NATO accession process through reaching of an agreement with Greece's Tsipras government. This mobilisation of all political capacities for delivering a very active foreign policy cost the government a loss of focus on so the much needed internal reforms, especially in the area of economy, healthcare, and education. Ten years of Gruevski's corrupt and criminal rule left all these sectors in a devastated condition. Services in other areas also continued to deteriorate, under the precept of focusing overwhelmingly on foreign affairs. In the last year (2019), the government had spent only one-third of the planned capital investments on improving a range of services for the citizens.
Even limited progress made in 2018, with the introduction of small-scale progressive taxation on the highest incomes in the country, was rolled back in 2019, and its application was paused for the next three years. The decision to pause the law was criticised even by the World Bank and the IMF. Even the leading global proponents of neoliberal economy believe that the inequalities in the country were excessively high for a flat tax. The capitalists in the country engulfed the social-democratic government, symbolised by the vice Prime Minister, Mr. Koco Angjushev, whose business had since sharply increased in profit through state tenders.
After initially proposing a comprehensive tax reform that would make the redistribution processes in the country fairer, Zaev's government incorporated new members into his cabinet in 2019. They came from business organisations and immediately pursued their self-interests through the implementation of neoliberal government policies. Thus, even a small glimpse of hope that anticipated the social democrats implementing minimal progressive taxation and economic policy, and thus regaining some small ideological position, quickly diminished.
It took social democrats only three years, after spending a long period of ten years in opposition, to prove that they do not differ from the opposition VMRO-DPMNE. The economic agenda and ideological spectrum of all political parties fall under the umbrella of the neoliberal fraction. This fact also played a major role in the results of the elections of July 2020 in which none of these two major parties managed to increase their support compared to the previous ones. These results were a consequence of the fact that the majority of the people, when it comes to the economic agendas of the main political parties in the country, see no difference between none of them.
The social democrats in their electoral campaign were the ones power during the corona virus crisis. Still, they did not offer any plan or idea of how they would handle the economic consequences of the crisis. Even the revelation that around 20 thousand people had lost their jobs because of the crisis was not enough to get the incumbent party to reveal how they were planning to tackle the mounting the socio-economic problems in the country. Even if this would be the first challenge of any new government. Instead, their campaign focused on highlighting the risk of an unreformed VMRO-DPMNE returning to power and thus opening the door to the return of Gruevski, who is currently in asylum in Hungary.
On a few occasions during the campaign, the social democrats also tried to portray themselves as pro-European and pro-Western, but still with a very vague and abstract political rhetoric. Namely, in their pro-European speech, one could not discern what the social democrats really meant by “Europeanness.” Is it the highly corrupt judiciary that their government failed to reform, or their economic policies that favoured the wealthy and friends of the government?
Instead of delivering any economic relief for the poorer social classes in the country, the SDSM focused on its social-cultural progressive agenda. Party also made a pre-electoral coalition with a smaller Albanian political party called BESA. Even though, the conservative BESA had hardly any common political position with social democrats, the SDSM needed their presence in the coalition to differentiate themselves from the nationalist, conservative and backward VMRO-DPMNE.
The other major party running in the July 2020 election was the VMRO-DPMNE (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity). This party, under the leadership of Nikola Gruevski, ruled the country for ten years and became known as the most corrupt political party in the short, independent history of the country. It also became one of the wealthiest parties in Europe. After the dramatic fall of Nikola Gruevski's party and an organised attack by various criminal groups on the parliament, dozens of criminal prosecution cases opened against the members of VMRO-DPMNE. Most of these cases linked to corruption and illegal acts of the members of Gruevski government and charges for terrorism against state institutions: attack on the parliament and MPs. Aiming to escape a prison sentence of two years and facing more charges that could increase his sentence, Nikola Gruevski fled the country in yet unexplained circumstances. He appeared in Budapest, where his long-time friend and supporter Victor Orban granted him political asylum.
With many members charged with criminal acts, the VMRO-DPMNE went through an internal reorganisation and elected new leadership headed by Kristijan Mickovski. The new leadership of the party, from is first days made it clear that there was no actual reform of the party and that they belonged to an extended hand of Gruevski's power clan. The leadership's political rhetoric of defending the actions of the previous government and its members and never distancing from the figure of Gruevski made it clear.
In the run for the 2020 elections, the VMRO-DPMNE continued with the same rhetoric as its previous leadership. They appealed to national sentiments of ethnic Macedonians, conservative values, religion. In addition, they played the nationalist victim card – being oppressed by international forces and neighbours.
Its highly apolitical, electoral campaign focused predominantly on strangely naïve and unintelligent short videos in which the Prime minister Zaev was portrayed as a 'stupid student', a politician who is fleeing the country with a bag full of money (in actuality resembling Gruevski) and a traitor who trades national interests for his personal interests. The strange lack of offering of any alternative political program to the one of the incumbent political party the SDSM, could only be ascribed to the very weak political capacities of the new VMRO-DPMNE leadership. Even their trademark traditional economic populism, built over a decade and which included subsidies for farmers, holidays for pensioners and computers for students, was completely absent from their electoral campaign. The only proposal on the finance and economy sector that the VMRO-DPMNE made quite visible during their campaign was lowering of the tax on income from 10 to a flat 8 percent. Thus, the proposal of VMRO-DPMNE did not criticise the neoliberal economic policies of the social democrats but pushed the same policies further.
The VMRO-DPMNE positioned itself against the name change reached with the Prespa Agreement. It organised a series of demonstrations as well as an unofficial campaign to boycott the consultative referendum proposed by Zaev's government. However, in the election campaign, its leader, Mickovski, declared several times that the party does accept the new reality and will not try to change or cancel the agreement with Greece. With this more moderate position, the VMRO-DPMNE lost its appeal to the more nationalist and extreme conservative sections of its base. Thus, its electoral political rhetoric suffered from not having any clear position on any issue, which influenced the number of votes in the election.
Similarly to SDSM, the conservatives of VMRO-DPMNE neglected the ongoing corona virus crisis and in their campaign did not propose a single plan for handling its consequences. Occasionally, they asserted their support for the businesses that were impaired by the crisis. This declaration complemented their proposal for reducing taxes. However, the party did not declare any support for the workers who lost their jobs in the crisis or for those whose salaries plummeted during the crisis.
None of the two major political parties SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE could win an absolute majority in the parliament. Similarly, the Albanian wing of political parties, which consistently played a central role in determining the government's coalition, demonstrated the same apathy of political vision. The BESA political party, due to its pre-electoral coalition with SDSM could not pursue a nationalist agenda. However, the two other lists continued with their traditional nationalist demands.
The BDI (Democratic Union for Integration) has been in government coalition for 18 years in a row. This party emerged out of the guerrilla structures of UCK (National Liberation Army) going back to a 2001 conflict in North Macedonia. The party increased its nationalist appeal by demanding the 'first Albanian prime minister'. It was this proposal that swiftly became the main topic of the political debates during the electoral period and thus brought a lot of attention to the BDI. Their leader, Ali Ahmeti continued to portray himself as the leader of the country's path towards EU and NATO and did not engage in confrontations with the leaders of other political parties. Technically, the BDI was the only party that did not run a negative campaign against other ones. Due to an accumulation of resources and networks built through their 18 years in government, the BDI was able to mobilise a great deal of their base. As a result, they became the most successful party in the July 2020 elections.
The other two smaller parties from the Albanian political wing in North Macedonia formed a coalition: the Alliance of Albanians and the Alternative. Both of these parties were a product of splits from other parties, and the only logical step for them in providing opposition to BDI was to enter a coalition. Their campaign, apart from enlisting a series of demands for more equality for Albanians in the country, also focused on criticising BDI for its involvement in the Gruevski's corruption-ridden government and pointed out significant failures in delivering their promises from previous electoral programs. This coalition benefited from the dissatisfaction of many people with the 18 years of the BDI in power and BDI's failure to deliver on its electoral promises. Although they doubled the number of MPs compared to the previous parliament, these numbers are not enough to remove BDI from the position of 'kingmaker' in the new government.
One notable aspect of the pre-electoral period in North Macedonia was the appearance in the elections of new smaller right-wing and radical right-wing political parties. Among those are Levica, Integra, Voice for Macedonia and United Macedonia. Out of all of them, only Levica managed to receive enough support to enter the parliament with two MP seats. Several left-wing activists initially established this political party in 2015. They aimed to advocate for workers' rights, anti-nationalism, environmentalism, and progressive cultural values. However, immediately after its founding, two factions emerged inside the party, and tensions between them started to increase so dramatically to the point of physical incidents. Up until 2019 when the party was taken over by Dimitar Apasiev as a new president, Levica was led by a presidium composed of 7 members. The party managed to participate in the 2016 general elections and only won 1 percent of the votes, which was not enough to enter the parliament. The campaign of Levica in 2016 relied on the proclamation of principles of social justice and economic equality.
After the elections, the tensions inside the party came to a boil. They culminated with the referendum on the Prespa Agreement in September 2018. Several nationalist groups, supported by VMRO-DPMNE, established a movement for boycotting the elections and organised a series of demonstrations. The groups consisted mostly of the same factions that held the violent attacks in the parliament in 2016. The so-called 'Jacobin wing' of the party led by Dimitar Apasiev joined the demonstrations and was openly proclaiming hard nationalist positions, naming the Prespa Agreement an act of national treason. These actions led to more internal fights within the Levica party and concluded with the illegal expulsion of four of the members of the Presidium and their supporters in the party membership. They also caused changes in the statute that altered the leadership structure from a collective body to an individual one. The 'Jacobin fraction' won the control over the party and is composed of people tightly organised around its leader Dimitar Apasiev. Thus the party transformed into an undemocratic, leader-centred structure.
Ever since the name issue in 2018, the new leadership of the party started to shift their political discourse away from previously socially and economically centred one towards hard nationalism. In the two years before the elections, Levica advertised itself in the public sphere as a party that would cancel the Prespa Agreement. They were also promoting a new law on the use of languages, which would establish Albanian language as a second official language in the country. In the election campaign of 2020, Levica successfully transformed itself into a radical right-wing political party. Its radical political shift, apart from the name issue and Albanian language, focused on saving the country from an Albanian takeover and fighting against Islamization of Macedonia (a country where around 40 percent of population is Muslim). In its aim to exacerbate ethnic tensions in the country, Levica was the only party that in its program included the annulment of the recognition of Kosovo. Few days before the elections, its president Apasiev declared that Levica and another Macedonian party, the VMRO-DPMNE, would form the new government and exclude Albanian parties. That was an open call for leaving the Albanian voters unrepresented in the government and thus opening a deep ethnic political crisis. As if the pre-electoral nationalist rhetoric was not enough, in the first interview after the Election Day, Apasiev declared that the main mission of Levica in the parliament will be to defend the unitary character of the country. He announced a push back against the federalisation by Albanians and Zaev. Although all Albanian parties do have nationalist agendas – with demands for more rights for Albanians, none of them has ever advocated changing of the unitary character of the country. With this sort of political signalling, now as a parliamentary party, Levica is imitating a strategy of the new right-wing parties in Europe. They are declaring enemies in other ethnic or racial groups to galvanise their support through fear and hate. In Northern Macedonia, where deep socio-economic problems are a daily bread of the working class, a party that calls itself Levica prioritises defending the country from the risk of Albanians. No word on the threat posed by an oligarchy that has plundered the country, and which could well be the main enemy of choice for this party: it would be real and relevant choice.
Its nationalist aggressive political demands also targeted those Macedonians who were deemed as traitors. These are the same social-democrats that changed the country's name and the NGO sector under George Soros that worked 'against Macedonian national interests'.
Although the Levica party still uses left-wing iconography, there is nothing 'left' left in its politics. Its electoral success was a direct result of the "pragmatic" shift towards radical right-wing positions. They grabbed votes of a nationalist and xenophobic section of the electorate, which, due to the 'moderation' of VMRO-DPMNE, had to find a new party that was firmly on the right. It also gained support from a network of Russian backed, anti-Western groups and web sites that formed the nationalist coalition for boycotting the referendum on the Prespa agreement.
Electoral results and the not so bright future
The electoral results from July 15, 2020 elections in North Macedonia were quite expected. Given the social and political context in which no political force provided any meaningful political vision for the social and economic issues that the majority of the population are facing. With no political party taking any of the grave consequences of the coronavirus crisis seriously and no economic recovery plan in sight; the election results ensure more of the same for North Macedonia's politics of disappointment.
According to the dubious, initial, official results of the State Election Commission, whose electronic system suffered a hack on the night of the elections, the turnout of the elections was around 50 percent. From the 120 seats in the parliament: the SDSM coalition won 46 MPs, VMRO-DPMNE coalition won 44, BDI won 15, the coalition of Alliance for Albanians and Alternativa got 12 MPs, Levica got 2 and PDSH (Democratic Party of Albanians – a party that once was a significant Albanian force but it is slowly disappearing) got 1 MP.
The results of the votes gained by the two major political parties SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE show that both parties lost around 30 percent of the votes compared to 2016 elections. This dramatic decrease in support for these two parties is a result of the absence of any social and economic plan proposed by these parties. It also means that moderation and liberal politics without a strong economic policy of social justice only pushes the working class to vote for radical right-wing parties. The 200 percent increase in the votes for Levica and 50 percent for BDI indicate that when there is a lack of representation for the real needs of the workers, they can fall prey to dangerous nationalist discourses. In this case, these are Macedonian and Albanian discourses, which feed on each other.
The period that follows will be one of the political trade-offs for influence and fight to control more of the economic resources. The BDI party, with its 15 seats in parliament, will try to enter a coalition, either with the SDSM or with the VMRO-DPMNE. Judging from the electoral campaign and the declarations of Ali Ahmeti, the leader of BDI, it is more likely that they are going to support a new social democratic led government (SDSM), possibly with Zoran Zaev as a prime minister. Under Zaev's government, North Macedonia is going to continue to pursue the pro-Western foreign policy and probably succeed in opening membership negotiations with the European Union. However, the internal challenges related to corruption and a dysfunctional, nearly criminal judiciary will continue to undermine the support and legitimacy of the SDSM government.
With a possible new Zaev's government, there is little hope to expect that its policies will move away from their neoliberal economic doctrine. It is a tragedy that, while SDSM coalition was the only political actor in the North Macedonia elections that did not pursue nationalist rhetoric, its economic positions are indistinguishable from any other party in the country. Currently, there is no political opposition to the left of SDSM economic policies. Given the economic crisis that is unravelling because of the corona virus pandemic, the social pressure for adopting more redistributive policies will be mounting towards any new government.