Election Macedonian elections 2016 the painful turnover of power

After five months of struggling and political crisis following the general elections in December 2016, Macedonia is finally getting a government. These fourth consecutive early elections were supposed to be a fresh restart and a means to overcome a longer period of deepening political crisis. But the effect was rather the opposite: the governing party lost the elections and have ever since done their utmost to prevent handing over power.

Published on balticworlds.com on May 25, 2017

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After five months of struggling and political crisis following the general elections in December 2016, Macedonia is finally getting a government. These fourth consecutive early elections were supposed to be a fresh restart and a means to overcome a longer period of deepening political crisis. But the effect was rather the opposite: the governing party lost the elections and have ever since done their utmost to prevent handing over power. The result is that the country went without a government until the President reluctantly accepted that the former opposition party formed a government on May 17th. Meanwhile political tension has risen to an almost all time high, including quite serious clashes inside and outside Parliament when a new speaker was elected on April 27.

This analysis is divided into five sections: first a background to understand the situation of today. Second, the results are discussed, followed by analysis of the election campaign, preparations and conduct. Lastly, it ends with a discussion on the new government and conclusions.


Macedonia has been ruled by the nationalist and increasingly populist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) since 2006. During these 10 years the Prime Minister Nicola Gruevski has implemented his view of the Macedonian nation based on ancient roots going back to the time of Alexander the Great. It has strengthened the sense of nationalism in the country, widening the already existing ethnic division. This issue of national identity lies at the heart of the VMRO-DMPNE policies and continues to have both domestic and international political implications.

With time it has become quite obvious that he nurtures a rather illiberal, populist version of democracy, and indeed even authoritarian sentiments. He has attacked access to information, through favouring pro-government media outlets and by penalising pro-opposition channels. The already rather politically controlled judiciary has become even less independent,[1] and the civil society has seen itself being slowly cut out of consultation by the authorities, and had their possibilities to act undermined. Shortly after the December 2016 elections, Mr Gruevski even threatened civil society organisations receiving funds from abroad, and vowed to a “de-Sorosization” campaign, referring to the Soros funded Open Society Foundation which is funding civil society over the world.[2]

These developments, which are only the tip of the iceberg, have led to a strongly polarised climate in Macedonia, both between the two biggest parties VMRO-DPMNE and the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), and also within the coalition which has governed Macedonia since 2008, that of VMRO-DPMNE and the Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), leading to further political tension.

The early elections of 2016 are an indirect consequence of the elections in 2014, when the regular presidential elections were combined with early parliamentary elections. The opposition SDSM refused to accept the results, claiming that VMRO-DPMNE stole the elections, where they won by 61 votes against SDSM’s 34. SDSM boycotted parliament, initially for six months, and later prolonged that period, which caused problems of legitimacy for the legislative process and reform work needed for further EU-integration.[3]

In early 2015 the SDSM leader Zoran Zaev released tape recordings of telephone conversations which seemingly revealed top politicians and even state security actors, putting pressure on journalists, businessmen and others. Mr Gruevski, on the other hand claimed that these recordings were part of a plot orchestrated by foreign powers to destabilise the country.[4] These tape recordings were released in waves, and deepened the already difficult political crisis stressing the lack of trust between the political actors.

The crisis seemed to calm down after the EU brokered an agreement, the so called Przino Agreement, between the main parties, setting up a time table to prepare for new elections.[5] The Prime Minister would resign and a care taker government was to be set up. The Electoral Code was to undergo key reforms, the SDSM would return to Parliament, and most importantly: elections were to be held in April 2016.

However, the country was not ready for elections in April, and they were postponed to June. During that period the SDSM deemed that the situation still was not ready and decided not to participate in the elections, a situation that the international community could not accept. Eventually also the June elections were postponed, this time to December 11th.[6]

Election dynamics

The elections were held in a very tense climate, even “nasty”.[7] During the two years of political crisis the country had seen protests and demonstrations of many kinds, reacting against what many perceive as an increasingly corrupt, illiberal and alienated political leadership. The electoral campaign was intense and saw negative messages against the opponents, including on inter-ethnic issues. Quite remarkably, although Mr Gruevski’s increasingly illiberal agenda has been criticised by European leaders and other internationals, the Europeans People’s Party EPP continues to support the VMRO-DPMNE and two of its prominent members, the Austrian and Hungarian foreign ministers attended VMRO-DPMNE rallies.[8]

The campaign focused on two aspects: VMRO-DPMNE portrayed itself as the defender of the Macedonian nation against foreign influence and weakening, while the SDSM targeted VMRO-DPMNE’s leadership and portrayed them as abusing power, being corrupt and engaged in criminal activity. The SDSM broke the pattern of only addressing one language community, and reached out to the Albanian minority, while the other larger parties continued to campaign in one language only, and target that specific audience.

The OSCE/ODIHR election observation report[9] shows just how much the international community wanted to send positive messages about the elections, but yet needing to acknowledge the tense situation, the continuous underlying problems such as the voter registration that are never truly resolved, and that the electoral administration is constantly behind schedule and seemingly not function properly. They try to portray the overall process in positive language, but the analysis is essentially negative through all the problems discussed throughout the report. A couple of issues deserve to be discussed in detail.

Voter registration

Voter registration is a returning issue in Balkans elections, not only in Macedonia, and it continues to be a concern for parties, voters, observers and NGO’s.[10] It contributes to a lack of trust in the system, and although the State Election Commission (SEC) and other state authorities have tried to arrive at a high quality list, these measures continue to be ad-hoc solutions, as the underlying structural problems are not addressed properly. The problem to arrive at correct lists lie in a poorly functioning civil registration of the citizens. Also legitimate mistakes based on the fact that the country has many minorities with their own languages, and that two alphabets are used and thus spelling mistakes occur can be interpreted as a political willingness to either inflate the list with duplicates or to deny voters of minorities their right to vote. The result is that the lists will always contain errors ready to be exploited politically.

Media landscape

Macedonia has a large number of media outlets, but in a country with only just over 2 million inhabitants, their financial situation is delicate. The vast majority of media outlets live off advertising, which makes them very vulnerable to political pressure. The government has repeatedly been criticised for “liberal use of promotional advertising” in friendly outlets, making it financially difficult to keep up with critical reporting. In fact, media freedom in Macedonia has deteriorated sharply since 2009, when the country ranked as number 34 on Reporters Without Borders’ media freedom index, to number 111 out of 180 in 2017.[11]

Although the government did not run such advertising campaigns during 2016, and they were banned during the election period, yet they remain a concern in the politically biased media landscape. In fact, most outlets did follow a political preference, and some journalists even complained to the OSCE mission that their editorial decisions were questioned by political stakeholders. Again, this contributes to lack of trust, and a controlled access to information.

Electoral administration

The SEC is normally quietly praised for functioning quite well, although it is struggling with insufficient resources and political interference. However, the political tension had negative effect on the efficiency of the SEC during the 2016 elections. The OSCE writes that the preparations were hampered by political interference, and that decisions were taken along partisan lines. This aggravated an already difficult situation where limited resources and inefficient structures were already making the SEC struggle to cope with the tasks. Decisions came late, and some legal deadlines were not met. At times decisions violated the OSCE commitments for good electoral conduct, but were accepted by the electoral contestants. Overall, given that earlier elections have been more efficiently organised, we can draw the conclusion that it is not the electoral administration per se which functions poorly, but rather political interference which aggravates an already heavy workload with insufficient resources.

Voter intimidation

Voter intimidation has gained increased attention during the last couple of elections. It was highlighted in 2009, after the disastrously violent elections in 2008. During the local elections in 2009 voters, in particular public employees, started to complain about threats of losing jobs or social benefits if they did not vote for the ruling VMRO-DPMNE. During the early elections in 2011 the pattern was repeated and brought to light as media started reporting about how public employees were receiving lists of up to 30 names to contact, also during work hours, and to convince them to vote for VMRO-DMNE.[12] These persons were later contacted by the party to control that they had been approached and indeed were going to vote for the party.

This pattern repeated itself again in 2014, and 2016, leading to the conclusion that the ruling parties feel the need to keep control over not only the voters, but also to keep control over the public employees. The behaviour is heavily criticised by the international community and the opposition, but it seems to not only becoming commonplace but also institutionalised.

Election results

Party Mandates 2014 Mandates 2016 Difference
VMRO-DPMNE (Coalition) 61 51 -10
SDSM (Coalition) 34 49 +15
DUI (Coalition) 19 10 -9
DPA 7 2 -5
Besa (new party) 5 +5 (new party)
Alliance for Albanians (Coalition) (new party) 3 +3 (new coalition)
Citizen Option for Macedonia GROM (coalition) 1 0 -1
National Democratic Revival 1 0 -1
Total seats 123 120  


What is directly obvious from the results is that VMRO-DPMNE lost 10 seats in parliament and SDSM gained as many as 15. The two new Albanian parties took 8 seats together, while the two established parties, including the government coalition partner DUI, together lost 14 seats. The two smaller Albanian parties entering Parliament in 2014 lost both their mandates. It should be noted that the number of seats in Parliament can change due to the number of votes from abroad (between 120 and 123), which explains the differing number of seats between the two elections.

These figures show that not only did SDSM take votes from VMRO-DPMNE, but also apparently from the DUI and the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA). Its novel and quite daring move to include Albanians on the lists and to reach out to the Albanian speaking community apparently functioned,[13] and seems to have given an impression among Albanians that SDSM is an ethnically inclusive party, whereas the VMRO-DPMNE is increasingly ethnically exclusive.

However, the very even results, and the fact that no one took a clear majority, opened for the difficult situation we have seen during the spring of 2017 when it has been virtually impossible to reach an agreement on a new government acceptable also to the outgoing VMRO-DPMNE.

Forming a government

The results of these elections came to be a watershed as the SDSM came up very close to VMRO-DMPNE: 49 seats against 51. Here a negotiation process started to convince DUI to leave the governing coalition and to join the SDSM. In fact, the SDSM managed to convince the three elected Albanian parties to form a coalition, arriving at 67 mandates. However, the VMRO-DPMNE President Gjorgje Ivanov denied the SDSM the right to form a government, citing “foreign influences” as the reason, referring to the ethnic Albanian parties in the coalition and their demands for right of using the Albanian language.[14]

The tension was aggravated when the SDSM and its coalition partners elected an Albanian speaker of Parliament on April 27, leading up to clashes in parliament where Mr Zaev and many others were injured.[15]

The international community has been strongly advising the VMRO-DPMNE and the President to respect the results and to let Mr Zaev form a government. Eventually, President Ivanov accepted to give Mr Zaev the mandate, and he could do so on May 17.


Although a government is formed and it is possible to proceed with other issues, the situation is tense and the country is deeply divided. The nationalists have proven that they are willing to take to violence, while the former opposition supporters have shown that they also are willing to take to the streets if needed. Mr Zaev has a difficult road ahead, although the turnover of power in itself is a testimony of the need to change.

In effect, these elections represent change in many respects. Not only that the opposition won the elections for the first time in 15 years, but they did something quite uncommon in Macedonian politics: they reached out over the language barrier and actively sought Albanian votes and included Albanian candidates on their lists. Although that is badly needed, it has strongly upset the nationalists in the country and this division needs to be approached carefully.

Unfortunately we can also see that the general electoral performance has deteriorated compared to the last couple of elections. Violent attacks against party premises is still accepted and carried out, the previously rather well functioning State Election Commission (SEC) was slow and under political pressure, and general trust in the state institutions and consequently the elections, was very low. In addition, a number of returning issues, including voter registration, have not been dealt with as had been planned for, issues which could have improved the overall performance, including bringing more trust into the process.

Zoran Zaev has a complex situation to untangle, and given that Mr Gruevski called for early elections again during the autumn just days before the President allowed Mr Zaev to form a government, the citizens of Macedonia are not likely to have seen the end of the crisis just yet.

[1] OSCE 2009, Legal Analysis: Independence of the judiciary, Skopje: OSCE Spillover Mission to Skopje, and “Macedonia”, Freedom House 2017, https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/NIT2017_Macedonia.pdf

[2] “Macedonia’s Gruevski Issues Threats”, BalkanInsight 17 Dec 2017, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/macedonia-s-gruevski-gives-threatening-speech-12-17-2016

[3] “Opposition boycotts new Macedonian parliament”, 10 May 2014, Reuters, http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-macedonia-parliament-idUKKBN0DQ0CX20140510

[4] “Trial Starts for Macedonia’s Wiretapping Scandal”, 28 Nov 2016 http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/trial-starts-for-macedonia-s-wiretapping-scandal-11-28-2016

“Macedonia Government Is Blamed for Wiretapping Scandal”, 21 June 2015, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/22/world/europe/macedonia-government-is-blamed-for-wiretapping-scandal.html

“Explainer: Roots Of Macedonia’s Political Crisis Run Deep”, 15 April 2015, Radio Free Europe, https://www.rferl.org/a/explainer-crisis-in-macedonia-leads-to-violent-protests/27675969.html

“Macedonia opposition leader says PM ordered ‘massive wire-tapping’”, 9 Feb 2015, Reuters, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-macedonia-opposition-wiretapping-idUSKBN0LD1U120150209

[5] “Agreement” https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/sites/near/files/news_corner/news/news-files/20150619_agreement.pdf

[6] “Macedonia MPs Vote to Delay June 5 Elections”, 18 May 2016, BalkanInsight, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/macedonia-court-halts-june-5-elections-05-18-2016

“Macedonia crisis: Parliament calls off June poll amid turmoil”, 18 May 206, BBC, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36327240

[7]“Macedonia’s ‘nastier than ever’ election”, By Valerie Hopkins, 12 Dec 2016, Politico, http://www.politico.eu/article/macedonias-nasty-election-nikola-gruesvski-nationalist-right-wing-brussels/

[8] Fouéré, Erwan, “The Macedonian Crisis – A failure of EU conflict management?”, Centre for European Policy Studies, 5 May 2017, https://www.ceps.eu/publications/macedonian-crisis-%E2%80%93-failure-eu-conflict-management

[9] The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia Early Parliamentary Elections, OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission Final Report OSCE election report, 11 December 2016, http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/fyrom/302136?download=true

[10]“Monitors: Bogus Voters Remain on Macedonia’s Electoral Roll”, 7 Dec 2016, BalkanInsight http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/monitors-fictive-voters-remain-in-macedonia-s-electoral-roll-12-06-2016

[11] Reporters without Borders, “Balkans’ Bad Boy”, no date https://rsf.org/en/macedonia

[12] See chapter 6 in Giandomenico, J. 2015, Transformative Power Challenged: EU Membership Conditionality in the Western Balkans Revisited Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis

[13] “Macedonia Social Democrats Set Sights on Albanian Votes”, 11 Nov 2016, BalkanInsight, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/macedonia-social-democrats-set-sights-on-albanian-votes-11-11-2016

[14] “Macedonia’s President Refuses To Give Opposition Leader Mandate For New Government”, Radio Free Europe, 1 March 2017, https://www.rferl.org/a/macedonia-president-refuses-to-give-oppositioon-leader-mandate-government/28341718.html

[15] “Macedonian police fire stun grenades after protesters storm parliament”, 27 April 2017, Reuters, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-macedonia-politics-idUSKBN17T2RZ

  • by Jessica Giandomenico

    PhD in political science at Uppsala Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies. Her research interests focus on the Western Balkans, EU foreign policy, power theory, elections, and social transformation.

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