Perspectives | North Macedonia

Albanian Parties may potentially become kingmakers in forming the next Macedonian government

By - 14.12.2016

Complex and possibly futile negotiations lie in wait after inconclusive election results.

The night of Dec. 11 was a long one across Macedonia, with the election hopes of many hanging by a thread. Social media was filled with messages of hope and victory, as well as those full of frustration. Throughout the counting of votes the race was close, with the ruling party, VMRO-DPMNE, leading by a small margin.

The website of The State Electoral Commission (SEC) was overloaded and not functioning properly. When it was working, the screenshots that were shared seemed dubious because of the odd and inaccurate percentages, a fault still unexplained by the SEC.

To heighten the confusion of the night, many political parties declared victory. VMRO and the Social Democratic Union (SDSM) both called their supporters out to celebrate, the latter celebrating in front of the Parliament. BESA, the newcomer in the elections, also proclaimed victory and began celebrations in several municipalities. Meanwhile, the leader of the Albanian ruling party, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), gave a somber statement, still declaring victory, but also expressing sadness that the Albanian parties had lost many seats in parliament compared to 2014, a reduction of seven MPs.

Now VMRO, for the first time, would need the seats of a coalition partner, and will have to be more amenable to their demands.

Despite this loss, the Albanian parties are being considered the biggest winners by some, and have been labelled as ‘kingmakers’ on social media and in opinion columns. Their new found title comes as a result of the narrow margin of victory for the ruling party; merely 17,696 votes, a far cry from their absolute majority in the past five elections.

Of the parties winning enough votes to secure representation in the assembly, VMRO won 51 seats, losing 10 from the previous election, whereas the SDSM won 49, gaining 15 seats. The balance has also been tipped in the ‘Albanian camp,’ as the DUI received only 10 seats; BESA, five; The Alliance for Albanians, three; and the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA), two. Perhaps the DPA’s loss is the greatest in terms of power and status, as they went from the second biggest Albanian party in the Assembly, to the smallest.

Traditionally, Macedonia’s government has been formed by a coalition between the Macedonian and Albanian parties that won the majority of votes amongst their respective communities. This year, VMRO and the DUI once again won the most votes, but neither party’s allocation of seats in the Assembly guarantee power. VMRO have failed to win an outright majority and would require a coalition partner to govern whilst the DUI winning the same number of seats as their fellow Albanian parties combined means they may not be first choice of coalition partner.

For VMRO, the issue becomes even more sensitive. After the 2014 elections, the party had the 61 seats required to govern alone, therefore inviting the DUI was a matter of procedure. The DUI could not force any particular agenda, because VMRO could easily threaten to govern without them. Now VMRO, for the first time, would need the seats of a coalition partner, and will have to be more amenable to their demands.

The chances of VMRO forming a coalition with the other three Albanian parties, which together have the same number of seats as the DUI, would be an almost impossible feat as they have no love for VMRO leader Nikola Gruevski, or each other. If VMRO does not manage to form a coalition with the DUI, the ball is in the SDSM’s court, and to have a majority, they will need to form a coalition with DUI and at least one of the other smaller Albanian parties in order to secure a majority in the parliament.

The kingmakers

As the last votes were being counted, it became apparent that the difference between VMRO and the SDSM was slight, and that a larger coalition would have to be reached for either party to form a government. The only possible solution, save a highly unlikely alliance between the two, would be negotiations with the Albanian parties.

Never has there been greater interest in the Albanian parties in Macedonia than there has been for these elections. It is a welcome change, though not necessarily a lasting one. Despite the euphoria that the Albanian parties might be the big players, which could make it possible for VMRO to be relinquished of power for the first time since 2006, things might not be that simple.

First, there is no precedent for Albanian parties siding with a Macedonian party that does not have the majority of votes. Until this election it had always been clear who the winning Macedonian party had been, and they selected the Albanian party to join them. While the lack of precedent might in itself not be a problem, the issue gets a bit trickier.

In 2006, VMRO selected the DPA to be their coalition partner, even though they had not won the majority of the Albanian vote, stating that the choice was based on ideological grounds. The DUI, who had won the most votes amongst the Albanian parties, argued that they had to be the coalition partner, because they had been the party most voted for by Albanians, and that to respect the wishes of the Albanian community, the ruling party would have to select them. This fierce discussion led to the early elections of 2008, after which VMRO selected the DUI to be their coalition partner, after they again gained the majority of the Albanian vote.

This argumentation is important, because VMRO might invoke it, turning the argument on its head. Furthermore, if VMRO were not part of the government, it might lead to the same backlash, with arguments that the ethnic Macedonian vote is not being respected. A portion of the voter base of VMRO are attracted to them precisely due to their nationalist, no-leverage-for-Albanians rhetoric. They might claim, as they have on social media, that they cannot let “Albanians decide for them,” ‘them’ referring exclusively to Macedonians.

Any party that decided to join a coalition with VMRO would be sure to lose more supporters, and possibly become a party of the past in the local elections in 2017.

There are ways of getting out of this argumentation. Firstly, VMRO does not have the comparative majority that the DUI had in 2006. Second it could be argued that the DUI’s argument was based on the spirit of the Ohrid Framework Agreement — a deal that was signed to end the 2001 conflict — whereas not joining a coalition with VMRO has no such implications. The DUI could also argue that entering into a coalition government with VMRO might not be in the interest of the well-being of the country, and euro-integration, the party’s consistent priority aim.

However, even with these and other possible arguments, the rhetoric might become ugly. Many Macedonians have been lauding the Albanians that voted along non-ethnic lines for the SDSM. It would be beneficial to hold on to this appreciation if and when ethnic Albanians become the center of nationalist vitriol.

A further problem is the lack of consensus among the Albanian parties. The new parties failed to create a pre-electoral coalition, even after several (half-hearted) attempts. BESA, particularly, capitalized on (or manipulated) the lack of coalition, while constantly flirting with the idea. The  May 9 protest is a clear example, a supposedly non-partisan event where the party leader of BESA nonetheless held a speech, to the chagrin of the other party leaders in attendance. BESA seems to be the most unpredictable of the parties and it is not certain how they will negotiate. Being a pro-Erdogan party, would it make it easier to be pro-Gruevski, despite their claims to the contrary?

On Tuesday, news circulated that the Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, had invited the leaders of the four parties to a meeting, but that so far only representatives from the Movement for Reforms in the Democratic Party of Albanians (as part of the coalition Alliance for Albanians) had met with him. It would be a wise step for the Albanian parties to meet, though perhaps outside the ‘patronage’ of Rama, if they are serious about the advancement of the position of Macedonia’s Albanian community and the country in general. However, there are combinations of governing coalition that would seriously damage some of the parties.

If the DUI enters any coalition with the DPA, it will seriously damage the party’s reputation, as it would give credence to the post-wiretapping theories that the DUI and the DPA, despite their public rivalry, have been buddies all along.

Likewise a coalition between DPA and Alliance for Albanians seems impossible, as the coalition’s leader, Ziadin Sela, is also the head of the Movement for Reforms in the DPA, a faction that left the DPA due to strong opposition to leader Menduh Thaqi and his politics.

Most importantly, any party that decided to join a coalition with VMRO would be sure to lose more supporters, and possibly become a party of the past in the local elections in 2017*. Many Albanians who voted for the SDSM, as Besa Arifi noted in a recent article, did so because they believed that to be the most reliable method of ending Gruevski’s politics. If Albanian parties ultimately entered a coalition with VMRO, particularly with Gruevski as prime minister (which they have all previously stated they would not allow), they would all lose legitimacy in the eyes of their voters.

It must also be noted that the SDSM, having now for the first time an Albanian constituency that in part enabled its increase in votes, must be mindful of them if they are invited to form a governing coalition. If it backtracks on the promise of a civic vision for Macedonia, it will never receive those votes again.

Of hopes and expectations

I made the argument before the elections that Macedonia’s true fight would begin after the elections of December 11, and I still hold on to that argument. The results of the elections show the immediacy of this fight, and the necessity that the winning side bring a future different from the past.

The country faces divisions not only based on ethnic lines, but on party lines, which are proving to be just as deep, and capable of disastrous rhetoric. Parties and their supporters should refrain from being hostile to the voters and focus their criticism on the parties themselves.

Lastly, all parties must be mindful that the true outcome of this election, and who the governing parties will end up being, will show us which parties will risk becoming obsolete by the next national elections.

Featured image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

*Correction: The version of this article originally published incorrectly stated that Macedonia’s upcoming local elections are due to be held in 2018. They are in fact due to be held in March 2017.