Is Progress on Electoral Reform in Macedonia Enough this Time?

  • Ilina Mangova

The last two years have marked a political, institutional and governance crisis in Macedonia, which the country is now hoping to resolve with extraordinary parliamentary elections this December.

The approaching elections, agreed consensually among Macedonia’s major political forces and guaranteed by the international community, through the European Union and the United States, will serve to rectify the contested 2014 parliamentary elections, rejected by the opposition as “undemocratic and illegitimate”. What has changed in the institutional and electoral set-up of the country for the upcoming elections to be acceptable to all political competitors?

The answer entails significant changes in government, the judiciary, elections and media, all agreed to by the leaders of four major parties – VMRO – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) and the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) – in a lengthy process of leadership meetings and negotiations among the parties’ representatives, formalized at Przino and in its follow up agreements.  The cornerstones of these changes are re-organization of government in the pre-election period, pre-election power-sharing mechanisms, electoral reform involving the deletion of unconfirmed voters from the voter registry, establishment of a special prosecutorial body and additional media regulatory bodies and mechanisms.

An interim power-sharing pre-election government for the 2016 election and an interim pre-election government before each parliamentary election.

A lack of adequate separation between the state and political parties which endangers the fulfillment of the political criteria for EU membership has been noted by EU progress reports and OSCE/ODIHR election monitoring reports. Admitting to this dysfunction in the Macedonian state, and with the aim of ensuring the opposition’s trust and internalizing an oppositional control mechanism within the government, center-left SDSM ministers and deputy ministers were elected to the 2016 pre-election interim government which is led by center-right VMRO-DPMNE. Specifically, SDSM officials are to run the Ministry of Internal affairs and Ministry for Labor and Social Policy, and additional deputy ministers in the Ministry for Information Society and Administration, Ministry of Finance and Ministry for Agriculture. In the future, 100 days before each parliamentary election in Macedonia the Prime Minister will resign to be replaced by a new Prime Minister (from the largest party) to lead a new interim government mandated to conduct parliamentary elections and to ensure that in the pre-election period governments will function in a more technical capacity without the ability to deliver patronage.


Special Prosecutor’s Office (SPO)

A new prosecutorial body was established with a mandate of five years to investigate crimes stemming from and connected to the illegal wiretapping scandal. The illegal wiretapping was publicized through the release of what is known colloquially as “bombs” – publically released recordings of illegally wiretapped phone conversations of high level political officials and journalists. The bombs had been released by the opposition leader, with the accusation that the Prime Minister and the intelligence director had organized a wiretapping of 20,000 citizens, including civil society representatives, diplomats and others. A total of 38 “bombs” of government and political officials were released by the opposition from February through June of 2015, and the conversations on these tapes raised suspicions of abuse of power and corruption in the judiciary, media, investments, private sector, the 2011 parliamentary and 2013 local elections, etc. IRI’s polling right after these releases found that these conversations decreased public opinion of how Macedonia is governed to just under half of the population (48%) . The authenticity of the conversations was not denied, however the governing VMRO-DPMNE claimed that they had been edited and constructed. The state prosecutor did not take actions to investigative these suspicions, further raising doubts about the independence of the judiciary. This led to the establishment of the SPO, which since its formation has initiated several investigations into election fraud and torture, and has just raised charges on two cases.

Electoral reform and cleaning the voter registry

The State Election Commission, which is a collective multi-partisan body, was widened to include non-partisan experts and its capacity and competence were strengthened. The opposition’s suspicion that the voter registry was inflated with non-existent persons was finally addressed by deleting 30,467 contested and unconfirmed voters from the registry. This came after several inspections of the registry, when a total of 39,389 voters could not be verified by other state institutions. During a public registration process, 8,922 citizens confirmed their voter status, and any others who were mistakenly deleted as unconfirmed voters still have a chance to confirm their status during the regular pre-election public inspection process.

Pre-election media regulation and ad hoc monitoring committee

A pre-election ad hoc media monitoring committee has been established to monitor compliance with electoral media provisions and assess balance in media reporting. The body was assembled to represent the two largest political parties and the Albanian ethnic community. While media monitoring has been intensified, penalties have become milder, and the freedom of expression of opinion guaranteed. At the same time, the opposition has been granted the right to nominate a chief editor of the state TV station and one of the state TV channels will begin broadcasting 24/7 in the Albanian language.

These changes were agreed to and implemented over a long and cumbersome process, with two previous attempts to hold elections on April 24 and June 5, 2016 having failed, but have now finally brought all leaders on board to have confidence in the election conditions ahead of December. However, the key players in the electoral process–the voters–should not be forgotten. Citizens still need to be convinced that the institutions are up to the job to deliver credible elections and govern democratically. As we last found, citizens’ confidence in the electoral process has been on a downward spiral since political negotiations began last year.  Only 48% felt that such conditions are in place, down from 63% in October 2015:  This number must increase among citizens if the process is to be considered legitimate.

If democracy is to prosper in Macedonia, the country’s political representatives need to deliver on the citizens’ desire for a transparent, responsive and accountable political process.  The conditions for elections have changed, but we should ask ourselves, whether the process itself has changed.

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