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North Macedonia’s Dirty Election Campaign Only Deepened Society’s Rifts – OpEd

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A campaign marked by abuse and banalities – waged between parties representing hostile clientelistic networks – has only driven more thorns into the fabric of an already damaged society.

By Harald Schenker*

Everybody in Skopje these days seems puzzled about the outcome of Wednesday’s parliamentary elections in North Macedonia. But everybody agrees on one thing as good: an unbearable campaign is finally over.

I am talking about the short and rather dirty campaign leading up to the elections on 15 July, which even the otherwise, diplomatic OSCE observer mission qualified as “marked by negative rhetoric, at the expense of substantive exchanges”.

At times one had the feeling that the two main rival parties, the ruling Social Democrats, SDSM, and the nationalist-conservative opposition, VMRO-DPMNE, had no other message than to demonise each other.

To the opposition, the SDSM were criminals or, even worse, traitors, who would one day be brought to justice for changing the country’s name. To the ruling party, the opposition was working to bring back former VMRO DPMNE strongman Nikola Gruevski from his Budapest luxury asylum stay – or at least his spirit.

An array of illegal clandestine recordings published on social media accompanied the campaign, trying to incriminate the other side. Most of the time, one had the impression that these so-called “bombs” were all that people were talking about, that this was the real campaign. And this is exactly what both sides intended.

I wish researchers good luck in finding a single substantial debate during this campaign that focused on competing concepts, on finding real solutions to the poverty and frustration caused by a weak economy additionally hit by the coronavirus crisis; by an educational system that barely deserves the name; by a rapidly deteriorating environment due to pollution and raging deforestation; by a general lack of rule of law, and by omnipresent corruption.

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, the ethnic Albanian party in power for almost forever, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, found an original way to leave its mark on this campaign by imperatively asking for an ethnic Albanian Prime Minister, and even announcing a “Spitzenkandidat” for the position.

The result of the election has been reported already; suffice to say that on social media it would be qualified as, “it’s complicated”. The road to forming a government might resemble many of the country’s roads: bumpy and full of potholes.

But the one obvious result should give any person in this country with some kind of responsibility a headache: the rifts in society are deeper than ever, and this is a continuing trend. To be very clear: this political style is driving a poisonous thorn into the very fabric of society, and nobody seems to know the antidote.

In 2017, Zoran Zaev became Prime Minister on the ticket of “one society for all”, which among other things meant overcoming the country’s ethnic boundaries by actively seeking support amongst the ethnic Albanian electorate.

Whether the idea has really been pursued during the last three years of governing is a different discussion, but on Wednesday, this concept was dealt a blow that could prove lethal: every single potential coalition partner stands for the opposite, and the SDSM alone is too weak to impose its line.

VMRO-DPMNE supporters seem ready to follow their leader, regardless of the outlandishness of his agenda, which included undoing the 2018 “name” deal with Greece. In the end it seems enough to invoke the good old “us-against-them” mantra.

The demonised other has an ethnic dimension – the Albanians trying to take the country away or alternatively imposing their way of life, language, etc. Its second dimension is proto-ideological: the enemy, the traitor, the sell-out, the criminal, etc.

The compelling thing about this strategy is that it needs no real arguments; “Let us take our fatherland back” suffices. It is simple, effective and sheer nonsense, but obvious enough to entertain an ethnically pure clientelist network of more than a quarter of a million of voters, many of who are employed in various levels of the administration.

The ethnic Albanian DUI has long since proven that its name is an empty shell, invented by a Western European in the process of turning a former rebel group into a presentable political structure. Its lack of interest in anything not pertaining to the Albanian population and insistence on power-sharing and consensual elements are the only constants on its agenda.

In terms of political marketing, this is sold to its electorate as “doing what is needed for our people”, while invoking minority standards in the discourse towards the “other”.

The latest political stunt, insisting on an Albanian Prime Minister, made it clear that the party’s focus is on its own, complicated and often conflicting, but generally loyal, clientelist network. The latter’s loyalty is encouraged by ingenious job creation activity in the public sector over almost two decades.

The other ethnic Albanian parties do not differ in this respect. They cater to their own, and have no intention of changing this.

No other political structure followed Zaev’s Social Democrats in trying to redefine North Macedonian society, in trying to undo mental and physical borders, and counter the nationalist discourse of “our people first”, by offering a concept based on integration and solidarity.

Of course, seeking an end to the conflict with Greece over the country’s name and having the deal verified by a referendum did not help overcome allegiances, in the short run. The process was accompanied by nationalist uproar, which brought up very ugly language. The process ended; the language stayed.

Another problem was the reality of endless compromising dictated by governing with a fragile majority.

The equation is incomplete without two additional elements: the sheer incompetence of many elected officials and the barrage of inactivity and refusal on the side of the administration, which is staffed to a large extent by VMRO-DPMNE and DUI clients.

Consequently, many of Zaev’s initial ideas were watered down, and withered away in an ocean of compromise decisions.

The last government’s biggest failure by far is that it was unable to deliver on justice. This happened to such an extent that it was made subject to mockery by criminal networks inside and outside the justice system.

The shining illustration was the epic failure of the Special Prosecutor’s office, set up to deal with crimes related to the illegal wiretappings that toppled Gruevski in 2015-16.

Its gradual demise had all ingredients of Latin American soap operas, in which the villains in the background are the real winners and the starlets commit suicide.

What attracted less attention in the media is that the government also failed to deliver on the “one society for all”, despite some remarkable progress like the reform of social assistance.

The permanent campaigning mode – from the local elections to the referendum on changing the country’s name, to the presidential elections and then the parliamentary elections – ensured that the society remained polarised and forced people into permanently declaring their allegiances.

Over the entire last three years, the party machineries of the SDSM and VMRO exchanged in daily attacks, very often over banalities. At no moment did anyone engage in trying to mend the wounds caused by this polarisation.

On the contrary, the amnesty offered to many of the perpetrators of the attack on parliament in April 2017 – in exchange for the government getting a majority in parliament to support the “name” change – frustrated many people and cost Zaev a lot.

The debacle around the law on use of the Albanian language, imposed by DUI and willingly accepted by the SDSM, even though there were serious constitutional issues about it, additionally fuelled nationalist feelings.

The future of this law is unclear, especially since it was negatively assessed by the Venice Commission, but the polarisation stays. This is the price of poor policy making.

If you add to this the feeling that justice is not done and that government criminality pays off in the end, it is clear why people seek safety in party clientelist networks. The other solution sought by an increasing number of people is to leave the country.

To reverse the damaging effect of this polarisation on public life, the next government has to seriously engage in building bridges, while insisting on the rule of law and on justice.

However, the constellation emerging from this latest election does not seem conducive to that. Whatever the government looks like, it is not likely to be the most stable structure.

It would be helpful at least if the negotiations for the next government followed a list of clearly defined policy issues, not who gets how much. A serious, public coalition agreement defining the activities of the next government would help as well.

I remain sceptical about the political language, though. As long as this confrontational, abusive and disrespectful way of addressing political opponent continues to be used, the thorn will go deeper and deeper. The long-term damage cannot be underestimated.

*Harald Schenker is a freelance consultant and political analyst.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

Balkan Insight

Balkan Insight

The Balkan Insight (fornerkt the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

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