It’s big vs small, old vs new in North Macedonia’s politics

The price tag for entering the political competition in North Macedonia is about to get a lot higher, especially for civic initiatives and independent candidates, with the amendments to the Electoral Code proposed by the government. The amendments, if passed by the Parliament, would require each independent list for the upcoming municipal elections to submit the signatures of at least two percent of the registered voters in the designated municipality, in order for their candidacy to be accepted and for them to be allowed to take part in the elections, planned to be held in October.

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This was heavily criticized by civic initiatives interested in submitting candidacies, smaller political parties, civil society organizations, independent observers, even by the president of the country Stevo Pendarovski, who announced that he would use his constitutional power to veto the law if it passes with such a threshold. In general, the proposal was seen in the Macedonian public as an obstruction of democracy by the big political parties.

The proposal is not an isolated incident, but could be observed as a part of a process for preserving the superior position of the big parties over the small ones and the independent initiatives. Other pieces of this puzzle include the rules for media coverage in the election campaign (both the current and the proposed rules favor the presentation of the big parties), as well as the government’s failure to amend the Electoral Code, where it promised to merge the six electoral units for parliamentary elections into one, in order to give the smaller parties a better chance of winning seats in the Parliament.

What do the numbers say

The scope of the problem can be best understood through the numbers. With officially just over two million residents (and unofficially way below that), North Macedonia has 1,827,463 registered voters.

The current electoral code allows independent, non-partisan candidates to run for any position at the elections if they collect enough signatures, which is 10 thousand for president of the country, one thousand per electoral unit for entering the parliamentary elections, and between 100 and 450 for taking part in the race for the municipal council seats, depending on the population size of the municipality. The City of Skopje is an exception, as a special municipal unit, and one thousand signatures are required for independent initiatives to submit candidacies for the city council.

By setting a two percent threshold, the non-aligned candidates for the Skopje city council would need to collect 9,226 signatures, which almost equals the number of signatures needed for a presidential candidate under the current law, even though, obviously, the powers that these two positions hold differ greatly. In most of the big municipalities (with over 50 thousand registered voters) where 450 signatures were enough so far for submitting a list of candidates for councilors, the threshold would increase to between 1,200 and 1,800 signatures. In some absurd situations, it would take more signatures to secure a candidacy this year than the number of votes needed in the past local elections to have a councilor elected.

For new players that are yet to present themselves in front of the voters, it is difficult to encourage that many people to get out of their homes, travel to the local office of the State Election Commission carrying a personal ID with them, and to sign in support of their candidacy. Moreover, they have only ten days to gather the signatures and will not be allowed to participate in the elections even if they’re one vote short.

According to the latest announcements, the government could lower the threshold to one percent in its proposal to the Parliament. But even this solution would greatly raise the bar for the independent candidates.

The numbers from previous elections showed that in the heavily politicized and polarized Macedonian society it was already difficult for independent candidates to win seats in local councils. Currently there are a total of 1,347 councilors in the country, divided between 80 municipalities and the city of Skopje. Only 30 of them have managed to win their seats without belonging to a political party or coalition.

This is why so many concerns were raised regarding the proposed amendments which would make the non-partisan participation even more difficult in local elections, where democracy is supposed to be in its most direct form.

A smaller opposition party in the Parliament called Levica (The Left) submitted 772 amendments to the government’s proposal, and so blocked the quick adoption of the changes in the electoral code. If this blockade lasts long enough, it could prevent the new rules from entering into effect for the upcoming local elections in October. But there’s no law forbidding the electoral rules to be changed in the middle of an election process. In fact, it has happened before, so Levica’s blockade doesn’t guarantee that the old rules would remain in effect.

How the system favors the big

The local election rules are no exception in making things difficult for both independent candidates and smaller parties. The parliamentary elections are even worse for them. Since the inauguration of the current parliamentary electoral model in 2002, one simple principle rules Macedonian politics: size does matter. As the country is divided into six electoral units, each giving 20 seats in the Parliament, and as the distribution of seats is calculated with the D’Hondt method, the bigger parties get disproportionally more seats than votes, and about 10 percent of the voters are left unrepresented in the Parliament because they have supported smaller parties.

It’s even worse if the votes for a single party are not concentrated into one electoral unit, but spread across all six. Then it would not meet the minimal criteria in any of them for entering the Parliament.

In order to change this, under pressure from smaller coalition partners, the current SDSM-led government (Social-Democratic Union) promised to unite all six units into one. This is expected to provide that each vote gets equal value and to prevent too many votes going to waste. However, in its second term, the government shows little interest to push for this solution.

Zoran Dimitrovski, the secretary general of the Democratic Union (a junior coalition party in the government), said in a recent interview for BIRN that he doubts the major ruling party is being honest about its promise to unite the electoral units. The thing is – it doesn’t have the sufficient majority in the Parliament to pass such a decision on its own and it would need the support of the conservative opposition VMRO-DPMNE and the ethnic Albanian government partner DUI (Democratic Union for Integration). Those two parties stated that they’re against such amendments and this is where the debate stopped. Dimitrovski, who comes from a small party that advocates the merger of the electoral units, believes that if SDSM were honest about their promise to their junior partners, they would have pushed harder for such solution to be passed.

The leader of another junior government party, Goran Milevski of the Liberal Democrats, recently complained about the proposed amendments for limiting the media space for smaller competitors in the elections. According to the proposal, the TV and radio broadcasters are allowed to air nine minutes of political commercials per hour, eight of which should be made available for the big four parties, and the single remaining minute should be shared between all other participants in the elections. Similar limitations are proposed for the paid advertising on social media platforms. Milevski called this censorship in an EU-candidate country, arguing that the parties that have support of 41 percent of the voters have reserved 90 percent of the media time for themselves.

The current solution for media presentation in election campaigns is not much better for the small players. Eighteen minutes per hour are allowed now, in which eight minutes are reserved for the parties of the government coalition, eight minutes for the opposition in the Parliament, one minute for smaller parties in the Parlament and another minute for parties that are not represented in the legislation body.

Why are the big being wary

The favorable environment for big parties over the past two decades created “the big four” in the Macedonian politics. Given that the country’s population is divided between two major ethnic communities – Macedonians and Albanians (less than 10 percent have other ethnic backgrounds), such is the political scene. The so-called Macedonian bloc is dominated by SDSM (Social Democrats) and VMRO-DPMNE (conservatives), while the so-called Albanian bloc was until recently represented by DUI (Democratic Union for Integration) and DPA (Democratic Party of the Albanians). Almost every government so far was a coalition between the winners of the two blocs. Even the parties were almost all the time competing only against the opponent in their own bloc, rarely crossing this ethnic divide. All that remained for the smaller parties was to get attached in coalitions with some of the big players if they wanted to take part in the institutions. In many cases, this cost them their political identity.

North Macedonia went through several political crises in the past two decades, which were being resolved on so-called leaders’ meetings outside the Parliament. There were many instances where the leaders of the big four would meet to negotiate and overcome difficult questions, sometimes under international mediation. When the four leaders would reach an agreement, their decision would be unanimously passed in the Parliament, often without any discussion. This behavior was sometimes criticized by political commentators saying that the Macedonian democracy was narrowed down to tribal-like meetings and decision making in a small circle.

Well, this circle seems broken at the moment. The Albanian half of the big four was already disrupted by new parties challenging the established ones, like the Alliance for the Albanians, Besa and Alternative. DPA lost its ground in this process.

The two major parties in the Macedonian bloc can also sense the end of their domination. The July 2020 parliamentary elections saw the lowest ever turnout in the country’s history of plural democracy, with only 52 percent of the registered voters casting their ballots. That was a significant decline compared to the 67 percent in the 2016 parliamentary elections. The support for each of the two major parties, SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE, dropped by a quarter or more, with SDSM losing 110 thousand and VMRO-DPMNE 140 thousand votes compared to their previous election results.

The lost votes didn’t go anywhere else. People just stayed home. While the effect of the coronavirus pandemic should not be disregarded, many political analysts and commentators consulted by BIRN explained the low turnout with the disappointment in both major parties that dominated the scene for decades.

The IRI survey results published earlier this summer confirmed this conclusion. They showed that both SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE stand at 17 percent support, which is their lowest ever, given that in past surveys they were usually standing on more than 20 percent.

Having these numbers in mind, some smaller party members and some political analysts believe that there’s a void in the political scene waiting to be filled by new and fresh political players. So far, only the Levica party (The Left), led by law professor Dimitar Apasiev, challenges the domination of the established duo. However, Levica’s policies are seen as too radical for many voters and therefore it’s believed that this party alone cannot fill in the entire void, so there’s enough room for other players.

Seeing all these circumstances – the decline in the support for the big parties, the disappointment felt by many voters and the sense of having no choice to vote for, the limitations of other parties and the ‘hunger’ for new players, some civic initiatives like Green Humane City decided to take part in the local elections. Under the current rules, the local self-government is seen as a good launching pad for new political movements.

But if the new rules make it more difficult for newcomers to enter the political competition, the big ones would be better protected from potential challengers. This is why the two-percent threshold was seen by many observers as a sign of an informal coalition between the remaining three of the big four – SDSM, VMRO-DPMNE and DUI in order to narrow the choices and preserve their domination in the political scene. However, the changes are already evident and what we see now is a competition of the big against the small, and the old against the new.