So the date is set. The invitations are out. Even the grumpy old uncles will be there whether we like it or not.
Macedonia is facing its fourth consecutive early parliamentary elections on June 5th 2016. The reason for these early elections is the difficult political crisis which culminated during 2015 when the opposition party SDSM decided to publish transcripts and recordings of wiretapped conversations between high level politicians, business men, journalists and others. These recordings revealed in detail how high level politicians had been involved in electoral fraud, abuse of power and corruption.
It was obvious that the levels of trust between the two main political parties, the governing VMRO-DPMNE and the opposition SDSM were exhausted. The SDSM had already boycotted Parliament since after the early elections in April 2014, claiming that the ruling VMRO-DPMNE had won through fraud. They continued to stay out of parliament until 1 September 2015.
During the spring of 2015, after the publications of the transcripts and recordings, the international community got involved, and the EU entered and brokered a deal, called the Przino agreement, including the resignation of Mr Gruevski and the preparations for early elections. SDSM returned to Parliament in September 2015, and participated in the preparation of a revised electoral law. The election date was set for 24 April 2016, and parliament was to be solved 60 days before, on 24 February. But after a marathon session on the eve of this dissolution, it was decided to postpone the elections to the 5th June, in order to be able to prepare the elections properly.
While the dynamics behind the political crisis are both disturbing and yet food for analysis and debate, there is now reason to look forward towards the elections themselves. What could we expect?
The deal from 2 June 2015 explicitly states that in order to hold free and fair elections, the State Election Committee should be strengthened, and that all recommendations from the OSCE/ODIHR should be implemented. That includes a revision of the always contested voter list and the potential pressure on voters and abuse of state resources during the campaign period.
The electoral law was amended according to the Przino agreement in November 2015, but there is broad agreement that this needs to be further revised after the elections. Continuous revision of the electoral law is neither new, nor uncommon, in Macedonia’s modern history. But it is a bad habit to repeatedly leave out the same aspects over and over again, and thus avoid writing a good and acceptable law which suits a country aspiring to join the EU. Such moves question the democratic dedication of a country.
But a good law is far from enough to conduct good elections. Macedonia’s post-communist elections have a history of troubles, in particular after the armed crisis in 2001. Violence was of concern until the disastrous elections in 2008, when the two Albanian parties DPA and DUI clashed heavily during the campaign, and one person was shot dead and eight wounded during election day.
It was obvious to anyone that the violence had to be dealt with once and for all.
That was done through two moves: first, the responsible DPA minister of interior lost his seat in government as DUI replaced the DPA as the VMRO-DPMNE. Now the DPA trouble makers did not any longer enjoy the protection by the Police. Second, Mr Gruevski realized that violent elections were damaging not only the country’s reputation, but also the legitimacy of his victory, and ordered total calm for the 2009 local elections. That has been kept ever since.
What happened next is that the physical violence was replaced by a more subtle version: voter intimidation.
Or rather: the visible problems have gone from being a violent battle for votes between two Albanian parties to become an administrative battle over votes between the two biggest (Macedonian) parties.
The VMRO-DPMNE allegedly set out to force employees in the public administration to find up to 30 voters each, and to ensure that they would vote for the governing party. VMRO-DPMNE has denied this to me in interviews, and said that they only targeted party members within the public administration, and that such call-centres were perfectly legitimate.
These allegations have been published in Macedonian media, including transcripts of the conversations, but it is prudent to believe that these are no new habits, as VMRO-DMPNE came with counter accusations, and that voter intimidation has been reported earlier also during SDSM-led governments. What is however worrying is the apparent scale of it, and that it seems to be very well organized.In addition it i s aditurbing sing of poor, or absent, division between party politics and the state.
In fact, commentators see this as part of a broader trend where the VMRO-DMPNE is creating an atmosphere of fear where citizens feel controlled by the government, and even on the road towards a more authoritarian state. Stronger clientelistic structures would be a part of this trend.
The elections of 2016 are in this context an opportunity to really break with the past. First, it is clear that Gruevski cannot come back and lead the country towards anything closer to EU membership. His credibility is exhausted and his means of governing are not in line with EU criteria for membership. If the VMRO-DPMNE is reelected, and he returns to power, the EU will have a difficult situation, but it will be almost impossible to endorse him as nothing has happened. Doing so would legitimize his increasingly non-democratic rule, state capture and set a difficult precedence in the region by the EU.
It is also an opportunity to break with voter intimidation and electoral malpractice. Such a move takes political courage and support by (domestic) electoral monitors. It is the duty of domestic observers and law enforcement to investigate claims about voter intimidation and electoral malpractice, and to bring out evidence. The new electoral law from November 2015 has strengthened the State Election Commission and given it more investigative resources, but the question is if that is enough to defend the free vote of the citizens.
The revelations coming from the wiretapping scandal show that high level politicians and power holders have been deeply involved in disturbing illegal practices. These persons are likely to fight hard to avoid losing power and ending up in court.
Although the campaign period is officially one month, the preparations for elections are already underway, and it is difficult to imagine that all political parties are preparing according to best international practices. It is unfortunately likely that it will become harder and dirtier by the day.
The opportunity to break with the past, both regarding political culture, electoral practices and general political behaviour, it there. It takes courage and determination, but if it is not taken, the risk is that Macedonia will slip even further away from democracy, rule of law, and good governance, and subsequently a closer relationship with the EU. That would not be good either for the country or its citizens.
Although there are many aspects of the past needed to be broken with, the upcoming elections is a first, and very important, opportunity. It should be taken, and taken seriously.
In the end, the international community, and in particular the OSCE/ODIHR will have the difficult task to judge whether the elections were free and fair. That is to a large extent a political decision, having to balance good progress with reported fraud and malpractice. That is indeed an ungrateful task, but also part of the opportunity.