By Erwan Fouere*
The early elections on December 11 were supposed to signal a return to the rule of law and democratic standards in Macedonia. Instead they have plunged the country into an even worse crisis, with demonstrations organised by the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party against the State Electoral Commission, SEC, even before it delivered its rulings on complaints submitted by the opposition regarding alleged election irregularities.
In such a period of heightened tension, an appeal for calm and restraint from the government and from the political leadership might have been expected.
Instead, Nikola Gruevski, the leader of VMRO DPMNE, has thrown down the gauntlet to both state institutions and to the international community. At a rally in front of the SEC building on Saturday evening, he announced that the party would neither recognize the findings of the SEC nor accept any recounting of votes in any circumstance.
[The SEC has accepted one of the opposition’s 16 complaints and called for a recount in one polling station in the town of Gostivar.]
The former Prime Minister also rejected what he called interference by foreign ambassadors and announced that his party would demand that controls be placed on activities of civil society organisations.
This threat came after several days of demonstrations against the SEC organised by the ruling party in which senior party officials could be seen exhorting the crowds to “defend the country”, even though the SEC was merely fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities in the electoral process.
This intimidation of a state body and incitement to violence was epitomised by the behaviour of the President of the Commission for Relations with Religious Communities, who warned of a coming “Night of the long knives” – recalling the Nazi purges in Germany in 1934.
The only appeal for calm came from the leader of the main opposition Social Democratic Union, SDSM, who urged his supporters not to give in to provocation. It was a statesmanlike approach from the leader of a party that has been subjected to a constant barrage of provocations and intimidation.
In addition to the harassment of civil society organisations, ruling party followers have even using social media to spread threats to known opponents of the regime. Meanwhile the Prime Minister and the President have remained silent and have not been seen since the elections, giving the impression of a country adrift with no government in place.
The results of the elections themselves represent a clear defeat for the outgoing coalition between VMRO-DPMNE and the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration, DUI. Together they lost over 20 seats, cutting their potential majority in parliament to one seat, if the current distribution of seats announced before the opposition’s complaints were submitted is maintained.
The unusually large turnout and the substantial gains made by the SDSM with support from ethnic Albanian voters as well as the emergence of new parties in the Albanian community signal a desire for change that crosses the traditional ethnic divide.
To quote from the OSCE/ODIHR election observation preliminary report, the electoral process reflected “public mistrust in institutions and the political establishment, and allegations of voter coercion”.
Indeed, had it not been for the “allegations of voter intimidation, widespread pressure on civil servants, vote buying, coercion, and misuse of administrative resources”, which the OSCE/ODIHR report said persisted throughout the campaign, the gains made by the opposition parties would surely have been greater.
The campaign saw a dangerous resurgence of nationalist sentiments from the ruling party, which has added to ethnic tensions. The party also had foreign ministers from two EU member states attending and publicly expressing their support for it – a point Gruevski seemingly forgot when he criticised the so-called “interference” by foreign diplomats.
Where this leaves a country battered by a succession of crises since 2012 is unclear.
A return of the outgoing VCMRO DPMNE-DUI coalition would only further deepen Macedonia’s crisis, encouraging the ruling party to tighten its “state capture”, to use the words of the November European Commission report. It would also reduce the chances of any progress in addressing the “urgent” reforms that have been on the table of the government for almost two years.
In any case, having campaigned against the extension of the mandate of the Special Prosecutor, appointed as part of the EU-led Przino Agreement to investigate the wiretapping scandal, the ruling party has surely disqualified itself from being in the next government.
The DUI party, which was part of the outgoing coalition, has yet to give any indications as to its intentions. However, even if it decides not to return to the coalition, the ruling party will most likely do everything possible to cling to power, even if this means trampling on the legitimate authority and institutions of the state.
This stonewalling could lead to a scenario where the only alternative is another election to coincide with the local elections scheduled for next spring. This would further drain the resources and energy of an already exhausted country.
The interests of Macedonia – and a chance to exit the crisis – would be best served if the main opposition parties and all the other parties who voted for change were to join forces in a coalition that would guarantee a return to the rule of law and to democratic principles.
Its priority would be implementation of the stalled “Urgent Reforms”, and restoring trust in the institutions.
By including respected independent personalities in its government, it would signal a desire to replace the partisan politics of the past ten years with a more inclusive broad coalition in which confrontation was replaced by dialogue and consensus-building.
Support for the work of the Special Prosecutor, SJO, would also be a priority. And to ensure due process of its investigations, this support would have to be accompanied by the establishment of a special criminal chamber with judges independent from the ruling party, which as we have seen, controls most of the judiciary.
Come what may, the Special Prosecutor represents the only hope for a return to the rule of law.
Probably the most difficult task for this incoming coalition will be to repair the damage to society created by the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party.
Restoring confidence in the functioning of state institutions and replacing the politics of fear and intimidation with those of hope and faith in the future is the only way to overcome the deep polarisation in society.
A more inclusive and more caring political leadership will ensure that the wounds of the past years have a chance to heal and allow the hitherto suppressed potential of the country to be fully realised.
The people of Macedonia, especially the younger generation, deserve a chance for new beginnings as we enter a new year. They have a right to this rebirth and to live again without fear.
*Erwan Fouéré is a fellow of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels and a former EU special representative to Macedonia.
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