No enthusiasm for July 15 election in North Macedonia amid relentless coronavirus epidemic

No enthusiasm for July 15 election in North Macedonia amid relentless coronavirus epidemic
A masked man walks past an SDSM billboard in Skopje.
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje July 9, 2020

There is not much enthusiasm among people in North Macedonia for the upcoming July 15 snap general election due to fears about the seemingly unstoppable coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic that has taken 360 lives so far and its economic and social impact.

The daily number of new cases in the country is still high, only once or twice dropping below 100 since June 1. Infected people and those in isolation are able to vote two days before the July 15 election in their homes, but only a few have registered to vote.

As the already hot summer moves into high season many people left their homes in the capital Skopje to find shelter in their villages or summer lake residences, so the question is how many will be motivated to return to the city to vote.

People are generally disappointed about the overall situation and there is no enthusiasm even among strong supporters of one or other party for these elections.

As usual, the citizens of the tiny Balkan country, which recently changed its name to North Macedonia as part of the resolution of the long-standing name dispute with neighbouring Greece, do not have many choices when it comes to deciding which party to vote for in the early general election.

As in any other election, the main race will be run between the ruling EU-oriented Social Democrats, SDSM, led by ex-PM Zoran Zaev, in coalition with the ethnic Albanian Besa party and other smaller parties, and the coalition led by the opposition conservative VMRO-DPMNE. VMRO-DPMNE ruled for 10 years from 2006 to 2016 under authoritarian former PM Nikola Gruevski, who fled to Budapest in 2018 to avoid a prison sentence for corruption. 

There several smaller parties like Levica (the Left) and nationalist Integra, as well as some independent candidates, but according to polls they have only a slim chance of entering the 120-seat parliament.

The elections are seen as the main test for the SDSM’s pro-EU policy. The party bragged during the campaign that it achieved a lot during its three years in power, primarily because of North Macedonia’s Nato accession after years of waiting and the open door for the start of EU negotiations. VMRO-DPMNE’s campaign has focused on criticising the ruling party for its mistakes and making promises to “rebuild” the country with an ambitious 1,000-project programme.

Due to the coronavirus, there have been no mass rallies during the campaign period, only small forums with a limited number of participants.

SDSM candidates are traveling from town to town, from village to village, organising such events under strict anti-coronavirus protocols, with party members and supporters sitting on chairs at a distance from each other and wearing masks. Party activists have been reminding people that the ruling party raised salaries and pensions and saved many jobs during the crisis. They claim that an even better life is coming for them if they vote SDSM.

VMRO-DPMNE has criticised the government for poor management of the coronavirus crisis, given that North Macedonia has the highest number of infected people and deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in the region.

Indeed North Macedonia, which has only 2.1mn citizens, has registered over 7,400 infections and 360 coronavirus-related deaths so far, while Serbia, with a population of 7mn, has 16,100 infections but only 311 deaths.

Both SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE expect victory

At their last TV duel on July 6 on the national MTV channel, Zaev and opposition leader Hristijan Mickoski crossed swords. Both expect victory on July 15. 

“Mr. Mickoski, we will stay in power,” said Zaev.

Mickoski is convinced that VMRO-DPMNE will be the undisputed election winner. “A VMRO-DPMNE government will come to power and will pursue an honest policy,” he said.

Mickoski criticised Zaev for having hiked the country’s debt during the crisis after the government issued a €700mn Eurobond and took several loans from the IMF, the EU and the World Bank to cover the costs of the measures to help the fragile economy, which was heavily affected during the lockdown.

Zaev replied that the money was used rationally to help people affected by the economic turmoil resulting from the pandemic and lockdown. Measures included issuing payment cards to the unemployed and people on benefits, as well as low-income people, giving vouchers for tourism, preserving jobs and reviving the economy following the lockdown.

In the meantime, Zaev promised that his future government will launch the vetting process for judges, while Mickoski asked for politicians to be vetted as well.

“The families of politicians cannot drive Maybachs or Bentleys, while ordinary people cannot make ends meet,” Mickoski said.

Zaev reiterated his narrative about North Macedonia’s success in international politics, after his government signed the Prespa name deal with Greece, renaming the country North Macedonia, which paved the way for Nato membership and the imminent launch of EU accession talks. The name change was, however, strongly criticised by the opposition as destroying the country's identity.

“I brought Macedonia into Nato, of course, together with our people. The EU made the decision to start negotiations with our country. I and our people will finally be able to make our country an EU member," Zaev said boastfully.

Mickoski answered that everything SDSM did was to humiliate, put to shame and devastate the country.

He accused Zaev of crime and corruption and said he wanted to see Zaev in court, indicating that if VMRO-DPMNE comes to power, criminal charges would be filed against the former prime minister.

Zaev resigned in early January, disappointed with the EU’s failure to give the country the green light for accession talks in October 2019, but the EU went on to make a positive decision in March, after the adoption of the new negotiation methodology. Since January, North Macedonia has been led by an interim government under Oliver Spasovski, which includes a minister and deputy ministers from VMRO-DPMNE.

Compromising anonymous wiretaps

What makes this campaign special is that anonymous audio recordings appear every day on YouTube that compromise politicians from both leading parties, implicating them in corruption and revealing contact with people on trial for rigging past elections and other forms of improper behaviour.

In the three new conversations that were published on YouTube on July 7, VMRO-DPMNE candidate Igor Janusev and former transport minister Mile Janakieski, who is now in prison, can be heard agreeing to turn off the lifts in some buildings, supposedly inhabited by SDSM supporters, to prevent them going to vote in one of the previous local elections.

Another bunch of conversations indicate that VMRO-DPMNE organised charter flights from Italy to bring its supporters to vote in Macedonia.

One audio recording reveals a telephone conversation between Janakieski and the current VMRO-DPMNE vice president, Aleksandar Nikoloski, in which Janakieski proposed to Nikoloski to find VMRO-DPMNE supporters to set up a traffic accident on the Kicevo-Ohrid road in order to prevent a large group of ethnic Albanians coming from abroad from voting in the local elections in Kicevo in 2013.

Mickoski also features in a recording in which he is heard talking to Zoran Mileski-Kiceec, who was recently sentenced to three years in prison in a high-profile case dubbed “Extortion”. The conversation focused on how Mickoski opposed the adoption of the law on the prosecution, which was one of the key reform requirements for launching EU accession talks

Other recordings show the SDSM in a poor light. One audio recording has Zaev using swear words and other insults against Bishop Naum and the Colourful Revolution that toppled Gruevski’s regime in 2016. 

There was also a photo and video on YouTube of Bojan Jovanovski, aka Boki 13, and former chief special prosecutor Katica Janeva, both under arrest in the Extortion case, with Defence Minister from the SDSM Radmila Sekerinska, taken at Jovanovski’s luxury apartment.

Zaev said that the anonymous posting of illegally recorded conversations is wrong and does not make a positive contribution to the election campaign.

“This country has institutions and they need to open an investigation,” Zaev said.

What are the parties’ promises?

Zaev promises higher wages, pensions and a better standard of living. He promises that North Macedonia will open 80% of the EU negotiation chapters in the next four years and will close the negotiation process in five to six years. This, according to him, will enable the country to get an additional €2.5bn from EU funds.

Zaev also promises that by the end of the next mandate the minimum wage will be increased to MKD20,000 (€325) from the current MKD14,500, which is 120% more than the minimum wage when VMRO-DPMNE was in power. The average salary will increase to up to MKD34,000 from the current MKD27,000 while minimum pensions will rise by more than 20%.

Mickoski says that this election is a choice between injustice and crime on the one side and justice, honesty and pride for Macedonia on the other. He never uses the new name of the country with the prefix “North”.

Mickoski promises renewal of the country, investments of €4bn of which €2bn will be in infrastructure, money for businesses and zero tolerance for corruption and crime.

VMRO pledges that if it returns to power the economy will expand by at least 4% every year, unemployment will drop below 10%, wages will increase by 25% and taxes will be lowered from the current 10% to just 8% — the lowest in Europe.

Opinions polls differ. In the last poll released by local institute Stratum R&D, which was conducted in the first week of July, the coalition of SDSM and Besa have a 2% advantage with support of 25% against VMRO with 23%.

In the poll conducted by the local BIPS Institute, 24.3% of respondents answered that they will vote for VMRO-DPMNE in the upcoming election. The SDSM’s support was 4pp less than VMRO-DPMNE’s.

Of North Macedonia’s large Albanian minority, 4.2% would vote for the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) and 3.1% for the coalition of the Alliance for Albanians and Alternative.

Zaev recently said he is open to a post-election government coalition with the Alliance for Albanians and Alternative.

The election campaign will last until July 12, and the voting will take place over three days for the first time. On July 13-14, under a special health protocol, patients infected with coronavirus and other illnesses and people with disabilities will be able to vote.

The elections on July 15 will also be conducted under a special health protocol for protection from coronavirus and will last two hours longer than usual, from 7am to 9pm.