Election Ruling Conservative Party Continues Its Dominance of Macedonian Politics

On 5 June, 2011, Macedonia held its 7th parliamentary election since the post-communist transition began in 1990. The ruling conservative party, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity, scored another victory. Political conflicts in Macedonia has eclipsed tension within the Albanian community, which represents a reversal of long-standing patterns of electoral politics in the country.

Published on balticworlds.com on June 14, 2011

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On 5 June, 2011, Macedonia held its 7th parliamentary election since the post-communist transition began in 1990.  The ruling conservative party, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (hereafter referred to by its Macedonian acronym, VMRO-DPMNE), scored another victory over its main competitor, the left-leaning Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia (SDSM).  VMRO-DPMNE won 56 mandates in the Sobranje (assembly) and SDSM earned 42.  In third place was VMRO-DPMNE’s governing coalition partner, the Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI, in Albanian), which secured 15 seats.

This was a “snap,” or early election, and the second one in a row that VMRO-DPMNE called (the last election took place in 2008).  The contest was close between the two Macedonian parties as less than 7 percentage points divided the popular vote between them.  Moreover, SDSM increased its parliamentary mandates by 15 seats.  Still, despite their improvement from the previous poll, the 2011 election outcome is certainly a bitter pill for the SDSM leadership and its supporters to swallow.  After all, it was SDSM that initially demanded an early election.  Alarmed at a VMRO-DPMNE crackdown on media outlets, they began a boycott of the Sobranje in January, petitioned the US and the EU for help, and insisted on early elections.  VMRO-DPMNE finally relented to this pressure in March and announced the June date for new national elections.  The defeat of SDSM on 5 June represents the party’s fifth straight loss to VMRO-DPMNE (three parliamentary elections, the 2009 local elections, and the 2009 presidential election).  Given that they initially demanded the elections, the SDSM leadership is now feeling the torment of getting what they asked for.

On the Albanian side, the BDI again prevailed over its main competition, the Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSH), the latter of which continued its downward slide, earning only 5.89% of the vote and losing three seats from their 2008 performance.  The struggle between these two parties for the Albanian vote originates in the 2001 conflict, when the National Liberation Army (UCK) attacked the Macedonian state at a time when PDSH was in coalition government with VMRO-DPMNE.  When the conflict ended in August of the same year, UCK laid down its weapons and transformed into the BDI.  From this point on, every election cycle (the 2005 local elections, and the 2006 and 2008 parliamentary elections) has been marked by considerable tension, violence, and electoral malfeasance as these parties vie for hegemony in the Albanian-dominated regions of northern and western Macedonia.

Complicating the Albanian competitive arena is the arrival of new party, the National Democratic Revival (RDK).  Led by the former Albanian nationalist mayor of Gostivar, Rufi Osmani, this party garnered 2.67% of the vote and was awarded with 2 mandates in June.  Whether the RDK can make more inroads on the Albanian votes captured by the BDI and PDSH remains to be seen.


Macedonia’s post-communist trajectory is a casebook study of the challenges faced by transitioning states that are small, weak, and contested both domestically and externally.  This population of 2 million people is ethnically divided between Macedonians (64%) and Albanians (25%), but also contains a plethora of micro-ethnic communities (Turks (3.8%), Roma (2.7%) Serbs (1.78%), Bosniaks (.84%), and Vlachs (.48%), as well as an indeterminate number of Pomaks (sometimes called Torbesi) and Goranis; hence the appropriateness of the French term salade de Macédoine to describe this distinct and colorful salad bowl of ethnicities.

Independence in 1991 brought about both internal and external troubles.  The 500,000 plus Albanian community boycotted most of the key state-building moments for the country, such as votes on independence, the new constitution, and state symbols.  Instead, they held their own referendum in 1992 and overwhelmingly voted for their territorial and political autonomy.  Inclusion of Albanian political parties in the governing coalitions since independence certainly did work to mitigate the secessionist frenzies that gripped the rest of Yugoslavia.  Equally important is that Albanians were never systematically brutalized in Macedonia, like their co-ethnics in Kosovo were at the hands of the Serbs.  Still, institutional discrimination, inequality, and Macedonian chauvinism rankled the average Albanian leading this community’s political elites to play a Janus-faced game:  participate in national governments but also push for measures that would weaken or divide the integrity of the state, and speak a rhetoric to their own community that promised secession if demands were not met.  Modern Macedonia was born, therefore, with a severe stateness problem.

Exacerbating this stateness problem is the controversy with Greece over the very name of the fledgling state.  Hard feelings between Greeks and Macedonians hearken back to the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, when Ottoman Turkey was pushed out of the region, leaving Bulgarians, Greeks, Serbs, Albanians, and Macedonians to fight over the vacated territory.  The 1946-1949 civil war in Greece is another source of animosity, as Tito’s communist regime supported the leftist insurgency, which overwhelmingly included Slavic Macedonians living in northern Greece.  The defeat of the insurgents meant ethnic cleansing, lost property, and discrimination, the latter of which continues today against a community the Greeks derisively describe as “Slavophone Greeks” (i.e., ethnic Macedonians).  Since Macedonia’s independent statehood, the governments in Athens have sought to bar it from international recognition and integration on the grounds that the term Macedonia (which is also the name of the northern region of Greece contiguous to Macedonia), is an integral part of Greek cultural identity, and that its use by the governments in Skopje betrays an irredentist claim on their sovereign territory.  It is due to the power of the Greek veto in institutions like the EU and NATO that Macedonia’s integration has been sidelined, and its admittance to the UN allowed only under the embarrassing ersatz “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (or FYROM).  In 2004, the US jettisoned the FYROM name and recognized the “Republic of Macedonia,” which was both a gift from President George W. Bush for Macedonia’s participation in the wars on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan and a deft maneuver to undermine a looming Macedonian referendum that would overturn decentralization reforms beneficial to Albanians.  Greek intransigence, nevertheless, continues and was on full display at the NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008 when Macedonian hopes for entry were dashed.

Despite these internal and external threats, Macedonia was, during it first decade of independence, the “little county that could.”  Pundits, journalists, and academicians in the early 1990s feared the worst for this beleaguered state, fully expecting a return to the explosive “Macedonian Question” that rocked late 19th and early 20th European diplomacy.  Instead, a combination of Albanian inclusion in national government, Macedonian elite caution, and the bad examples of war in the rest of Yugoslavia led many to dub this country an “oasis of peace,” and the “Macedonian miracle.”  “Peace” and “miracle,” that is, until 2001 when paramilitary offshoots from the Kosovo Liberation Army launched an assault on the state and kicked off a six-month conflict that was only calmed by the intervention of western powers who, in turn, imposed a peace deal known as the Ohrid Framework Agreement.  This pact called for constitutional changes to ensure the legal equality of Albanians, provisions for Albanian language rights, directives for equitable representation in state institutions, and a host of other prescriptions.  Political wrangling, intense competition, and often-dangerous brinkmanship over whether and how to implement these measures absorbed much of domestic politics for the next decade.

Consolidating Democracy and the State

Even in the best of circumstances, democracy is an imperfect institution.  Conditions in Macedonia are certainly far from ideal for the fragile flower of democracy to bloom, and yet bloom it has.  Both the 2009 presidential and local elections, and the June 2011 elections had a notable absence of violence and, for the most part, met the standards used by international election monitors.  Consequently, an important political test of Macedonia’s democratic credibility has been met.  Freedom House figures from 2010 support these claims.  For example, the quality of democratic governance stands at a score of 4.00 (1 represents the highest level of democratic achievement; 7 indicates poor performance); the electoral process rating is 3.25; the robustness of civil society 3.25; the independence of the media 4.25, local democratic governance 3.75; the independence and efficiency of the judicial system 4.00; and the fight against corruption stands at 4.00.  While there is ample room for improvement with these scores, democratic performance in Macedonia has not declined, and for some indicators, has even improved since 2009.  Also noteworthy is the passage of a constitutional amendment in 2006 that established quotas for female representation on electoral party lists.  In 2010, there were 39 female MPs, which amounted to 33% of the Sobranje membership.

A crucial milestone for Macedonia has been its success at passing laws required by the Ohrid Framework Agreement.  Among other things, the constitutional preamble was amended so that the moral foundation of the state is civic and not ethnic; important decentralization laws were passed to enhance local administration; the Law on Languages was approved in 2009 and now guarantees minority languages official status if the language group in question constitutes 20% or more of a municipality; and substantial progress has been made recruiting Albanians into the civil services, including the police forces.  Today, the EU regards the reforms necessary for accession to be essentially complete.  Likewise, NATO has stated since 2004 that Macedonia meets its standards for full membership. 

Domestically, all politically significant parties and political elites in Macedonia accept the Ohrid Framework as a core pillar of the state.  Only fringe and marginalized groups continue to challenge it.  To be sure, Macedonians generally consider Ohrid as a defeat for their community, and occasionally some Albanian politicians, most notably the PDSH party leadership, flirt with extremist rhetoric and posturing.  But by and large, the Albanian political class has come to accept Macedonia as “their state too.”  As Rizvan Sulejmani (university professor and former Albanian politician) explains, “the Framework Agreement was decisive to make the Albanians loyal to Macedonia.  We got rights in exchange for our recognition of the Republic.  Macedonia is our state, as we are equal here.”  This is a monumental achievement and provides a good harbinger for Macedonia’s future stability.

Room for Improvement:  Political Parties

Apart from interethnic tensions, which continue to arise with regularity, an obvious place where democratic performance can be improved is the party system.  After twenty years of independence and democratization, Macedonia continues to have an enormous number of parties populating its political landscape.  In the 2011 election, a total of 22 miniscule parties were coalesced with VMRO-DPMNE.  Likewise, the SDSM coalition included 14 micro-parties.  This is in addition to the 16 independent parties that fielded candidates.  Altogether, a total 54 parties ran for office in the 2011 elections.  In 2007 a new law was passed that required a party to have 1,000 members to register rather than the previous threshold of 500.  Obviously, this has done little to cut down the plethora of marginal parties that hope to win at least one seat in the Sobranje.  At the other end of the spectrum, there has occurred a consolidation of the effective or significant parties.  VMRO-DPMNE, SDSM, BDI and PDSH are the big, established parties that dominate the articulation and aggregation of their respective communities’ political interests.    

 The big parties, however, have their own problems abiding my normal democratic practices.  In particular, the use of the boycott as a political tactic to press for ones interests is used far too frequently and invariably damages the quality of democracy both domestically and in the eyes of the international community.  For instance, VMRO-DPMNE boycotted the second round of the 1994 parliamentary elections and any participation in the Sobranje on the grounds that SDSM committed widespread electoral fraud.  They boycotted the 2002 Sobranje as well when it became clear that the SDSM coalition would include the BDI, a party VMRO-DPMNE deemed composed of terrorists.  The PDSH practiced boycotts of the Sobranje in 2003, the second round of local elections in 2005, and continued to abstain from participation in the national assembly until February 2006.  They then utilized this tactic again in 2008, and in August of 2009 walked out of parliament and stayed away until the current election.  The BDI got into this game also between 2006 and 2007.  Finally, SDSM has boycotted the Sobranje on 3 separate occasions, the latest being its walkout in January 2011 which created the conditions for the early elections.

This literal boycott mania is a not-so-subtle form of blackmail.  By creating a political crisis, the aggrieved party hopes to elicit the support of the international community and obtain its agenda by extra-parliamentary means.  The end result however is the fabrication of fake crises, which perpetuate the image of Macedonia as unstable and incapable of democratic self-rule.  It is imperative that all parties choose behavior that is consonant with democratic values and that they press their interests through normal institutional channels.  Democracy indeed creates winners and losers, but unlike authoritarian regimes, neither winner nor loser is permanently locked into that position.  On the contrary, the great promise of democracy is that today’s losers may be tomorrow’s winners.  Too many Macedonian and Albanian parties fail to appreciate this.  When VMRO-DPMNE boycotted the elections in 1994, the result was a disaster for them as the SDSM went on to control the government for the next four years.  Now the tables are reversed, and SDSM brinkmanship has helped to solidify VMRO-DPMNE’s political dominance of the country.  Perhaps the SDSM will now too learn that the boycott carries the very real price of a negative electoral blowback.

VMRO-DPMNE’s Renewed Mandate:  Recipe for Repression or the Rule of Law?

What set the SDSM boycott off in January of this year was a police raid on the offices of A1 television and several other related media outlets that occurred in November 2010.  A total of 2 television stations and three newspapers were the focus of the crackdown.  The government claims these companies were obstructing the work of tax revenue officials for months while seeking ways to send 7.5 million euros to tax havens in Europe.  The owner of A1 television, Velija Ramkovski (who also owns the newspapers Vreme and Shpic), is a persistent critic of VMRO-DPMNE, which raises the question of whether VMRO-DPMNE is cracking down on free speech and an independent media.  This, anyway, is how the opposition, and in particular, the SDSM framed the event.  50,000 protestors who marched in downtown Skopje in December agreed with this interpretation.

From the outside, it is difficult to determine which view is correct.  Is VMRO-DPMNE turning towards more repressive measures, or is it simply imposing, like all good governments must, the rule of law?  A definitive conclusion is not possible at this time.  It is true that there still persists in Macedonia a culture of not paying taxes, and no self-respecting state can maintain fiscal rectitude or even moral credibility in the face of widespread and brazen disregard for the law.  At the same time, singling out A1 for scrutiny is highly suspicious to Macedonians, for this channel indeed has adopted an adversarial role towards the government and its legal troubles may now undermine a critical voice that all healthy democracies need.

A similar narrative can be constructed regarding efforts to reform the financing of political parties.  In 2009, VMRO-DPMNE passed amendments to the Law on the Financing of Public Parties.  These measures are designed to bring greater transparency to campaign donations, strengthen the mechanisms for party recordkeeping, and eliminate illegal financing.  Once passed, opposition parties started to feel the heat of the new law.  One day after the 5 June election, for example, the former interior minister, Ljube Boskovski, who now leads the party United for Macedonia, was arrested for abuse of his position and illicit campaign funding.  Previously, in 2009, the former prime minister and defense minister, Vlado Buckovski (SDSM member), was sentenced to prison for corruption related to defense procurements.  The Court of Appeals later overturned the case.  So once again, one may ask, is VMRO-DPMNE strengthening the rule of law, or is it selectively targeting opponents to its rule?  Whatever one concludes, the sum total of these political conflicts is that tension within the Macedonian political community has now eclipsed tension within the Albanian community, which represents a reversal of long-standing patterns of electoral politics in the country.

 If we grant VMRO-DPMNE a charitable interpretation, and agree that the application of the rule of law will always generate opposition from those who are deemed lawbreakers, then surely it is incumbent on the ruling party to patiently and persistently explain its actions to the public, and to ensure that its own actions are fully in accordance with the law.  Otherwise, an electoral blowback will certainly greet this party in the future.

Parliamentary Elections  — 5 June 2011

Party Leader Ideology % of votes seats
VMRO-DPMNE Nikola Gruevski Conservative,Macedonian nationalism       39.22         56
SDSM Branko Crvenkovski Social democracy, center-left        32.81          42
BDI Ali Ahmeti Albanian minority rights        10.28         15
PDSH Mendu Thaci Albanian minority rights          5.89           8
RDK Rufi Osmani Albanian minority rights           2.67           2
VMRO-People’s Party Ljubco Georgievski Macedonian nationalism           2.51           0
New Democracy Imer Selmani Albanian minority rights; economic reforms          1.76           0
United for Macedonia Ljube Boskovski Macedonian nationalism         1.52           0
Liberal Democratic Party Jovan Manasievski liberalism        1.48           0
      98.14%                   123



PDSH:  Democratic Party of Albanians

RDK:  National Democratic Revival

SDSM:  Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia

UCK:  National Liberation Army

VMRO-DPMNE:  Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity


Census 2002.  State Statistical Office, Republic of Macedonia, (Skopje:  12 January 2003), < www.stat.gov.mk >.

Daskalovski, Zhidas. 2010.  “Macedonia: a Country Report,” in Jeannette Goehring, (ed.), Nations in Transit 2010: Democratization from Central Europe to Eurasia, (Freedom House: New York).

“Early Parliamentary Elections, 2011.  State Election Commission, Republic of Macedonia < >.

Gromes, Thorsten.  2009.  Between Impositions and Promises:  Democracy in

Macedonia.  PRIF reports, n.1, Peace Research Institute:  Frankfurt.

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