The first round of North Macedonia’s local elections will be on October 17, the seventh local elections since the country declared independence in 1991. In the not-so-long tradition of Macedonian politics, local elections have been an opportunity for the clash of the government and opposition parties, where all policies get entangled. Even those that have no place in the local elections aim to diminish the opponents’ posture.
For mayorships and seats on municipal councils in 80 municipalities, as well as the city of Skopje as a special territorial unit, 297 candidates will compete, primarily representatives of political parties. Unlike in previous elections, the long list of candidates features many from independent lists. Unfortunately, from the viewpoint of gender equality, a mere 8 percent of mayoral candidates are women.
Though not a complete novelty, the sheer number of candidates from these independent lists may indicate that citizens are more interested in exercising their democratic right to directly choose their own candidate, rather than a party’s.
But those in power have been engaging in some pre-election games. Only a month before the election, they managed to amend the election law. The move infuriated the public and ignited intense criticism. Just like previous governments, this one too turned a deaf ear to the critics, succeeding at least in part at accomplishing their intentions.
Numbers and power
In the desire to limit or prevent the participation of independent candidates’ lists and civic initiatives in the election, the ruling SDSM party submitted a parliamentary motion to change the election law two months before the election. They had the support of their coalition partner, the Albanian party DUI, along with the support of the opposition parties VMRO-DPMNE and the Alliance of Albanians.
One of the changes in the proposal would dramatically increase the number of signatures prospective candidates would have to collect to get on the ballot. According to this proposal, the threshold for the number of signatures would be 2 percent of the total number of voters in a given municipality. Their proposal is contrary to the recommendations of the OSCE of 1 percent and is considered too high, nearly impossible to achieve two months prior to the elections, especially for independent lists.
President Stevo Pendarovski reacted, saying he would not sign the law. Indignant, he pointed out an absurdity in the motion, a candidate from an independent list running in Skopje would now need to collect 10,000 signatures, the same number required for an independent candidate running for state president.
The Levica party temporarily blocked these motions in a parliamentary procedure, however, SDSM and their political partners didn’t give up. Just 33 days before the election, they used an expedited procedure to push the changes through. Although he was initially against it, President Pendarovski signed off on the law.
The changes aren’t limited to the issue of signatures. They allow citizens to vote with an invalid or expired ID and, in order to counter abuses during elections, obliges the state to provide a detailed list of registered vehicles to the State Commission for the Prevention of Corruption. The changes also put in motion the eventual adoption of fingerprint voting.Still, the threshold for collecting signatures made it through.
The amendments were supposed to address OSCE concerns about the main political parties’ dominance in the media, but critics argue that the hastily voted upon changes will not have an effect. Currently, the four biggest parties share the dominant portion of media coverage. Levica, which doesn’t have a parliamentary group but does have two MPs, receives around 7 percent of all media coverage. Little room remains for the smaller parties and independent citizens’ lists, about 3 percent.
This type of behavior from the big parties, regardless of who is in power, is a potent reminder of the unanimous voting of SDSM, VMRO-DPMNE, and other big parties for the 2007 amendment of the Law on Registration of Political Parties. On the basis of a 2004 law, new political parties were only required to collect 500 signatures to register. The 2007 change raised the threshold to 1,000 signatures, which makes registering new political parties difficult in a small country such as North Macedonia.
Is change possible?
The level of local self-organization in this election cycle is the highest it’s ever been. Independent candidates’ lists for mayors and council members of municipalities cropped up in several cities.
The election programs of independent initiatives have proven to be very similar to each other. They largely focus on environmental issues and concerns about urban construction. Due to a massive expansion of the construction sector, the city now has nine heat spots where daily temperatures in the summer can reach dangerously high temperatures. Part of the reason for that is investors do not respect the requirement to keep construction parcels at least 20 percent greenery.
For the current SDSM-led government, ecological and urbanism concerns in Skopje are being ignored. The construction companies with close government ties, often referred to as the “construction mafia” in Macedonian media, have become so influential that, apart from the city park, there are hardly any green spaces remaining in the city. Political inaction has allowed the entire city to drown in concrete and buildings.
With much of the city center and surrounding suburbs completely overbuilt, the density of buildings seems to be approaching that of a Brazilian favela. Instead of reversing the trend, the current city authorities continue to issue construction permits, supporting the party’s big donors and business partners.
The residents of Skopje have two independent lists to choose from. One of them is the movement Zelen Human Grad, or Green Humane City, which is composed of more than 20 civic organizations. The group is active in the fields of environmental protection, urbanism, and animal protection.
Their candidate for the Skopje city council is the well-known activist Dragana Velkovska. For mayor, they’ve put forward the former director of the State Inspectorate for Environmental Protection Ana Petrovska, who was removed from the post a few months ago, even though many argue that she performed her job professionally.
The focus of Zelen Human Grad’s program is the restoration of the city’s greenery that was destroyed by the construction mafia. In addition, they promise safer streets for pedestrians and bicyclists and return of a humane dimension to the town.
The other independent list running in Skopje is Šansa za Centar. Their candidates include Jana Belčeva, who for two years presided over Skopje’s Centar municipality council, and Professor Divna Penčić, who teaches at the Faculty of Architecture. The movement’s program emphasizes the fight for clean air and a dignified and quality life in the city.
Promises given by independent lists aren’t impossible to deliver, but their adversaries come in the form of construction firms tightly connected to all parties and all levels of government. This means that even if they win enough votes, they will have to confront many challenges.
Independent initiatives, or citizens’ lists supporting independent candidates, are alive and well in a number of municipalities across the country.
Citizens of Tetovo, likely the most polluted Macedonian city, have an independent list titled Podobro za Tetovo / Më mirë për Tetovën (Better for Tetovo). They promise a drastic improvement in the quality of life in Tetovo and say that the current mayor from the Albanian DUI party, Teuta Arifi, can’t see the tons of garbage piling up in the streets and the traffic chaos.
The struggle of the inhabitants of Strumica and the surrounding areas against the opening of toxic mines in their vicinity has taken a forward step with the formation of a candidates’ list called “Stiga e — front protiv rudnikot i zagaduvačite na životnata sredina” (We’re here — the front against mines and polluters of the environment).
One of the blows against the ruling SDSM came from their longtime stronghold Kumanovo. At the start of the pandemic Mayor Maksim Dimitrievski begged the government to declare a quarantine for the city, which week after week had the highest number of new infections. The government ignored his appeals. An internal party battle between him, the local party base and the party’s headquarters in Skopje culminated with his decision to become an independent candidate.
It’s unclear what the current mayor plans for Kumanovo if he is re-elected, but there seems to be something odd about one of his campaign promises to “erect a statue to the American company Kellogg, Brown & Root.” The reason being that this firm has employed thousands upon thousands of Kumanovo’s inhabitants in American bases in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, infusing almost a billion euros into the city in the past 15 years.
It’s normal for parties to toss around empty promises during elections. Across the country candidates’ promises include aqua parks, cultural centers, cinemas, golf courses and botanical gardens.
The land of sunshine and eternal uncertainty
Besides environmental issues and excessive construction, the current government faces additional problems. They have shot themselves in the foot multiple times. Lately, what has come to light are cases of corrupt close associates of the prime minister and the apparent inviolability of DUI party members. DUI, which has been in power since 2002, has long controlled the Ministry of Environment, making them directly responsible for the lack of solutions to the massive pollution problems the country is facing.
A notable blow to the popularity of SDSM occurred on September 8 due to the tragedy at the modular Covid hospital in Tetovo where a fire broke out, killing 14 patients in just three minutes.
Even though German experts arrived only a few days later to help with the investigation, we still don’t know why the fire erupted in the first place and even less about who should take responsibility. Health Minister Venko Filipče offered his resignation, but Prime Minister Zoran Zaev refused to accept it, saying that he still awaits the results of the investigation.
Although the Macedonian land is truly a land of sunshine and bounty, its residents, from independence until the present day, have been living in a state of uncertainty and stress that has only been growing. Life revolves around elections, around who will be removed from power. All decisions are put on hold, awaiting the results of the election.
People are fatigued by the uncertainty that is perpetually on offer by political parties. If only, they say, they could have a degree of Swiss boredom and security. In stark contrast, this is what the existing structures are delivering: corruption, selfishness, involvement with the criminal milieu, nepotism, and incompetence with the arrogance and simple-mindedness of political representatives sprinkled on top.
Nevertheless, there is some hope this year as a result of the independent lists and the fact that citizens are speaking out and have decided to stay and fight for their country. The Macedonian state has become a swamp in which all hopes for a better future have drowned. Yet, the cleaning of every swamp starts with its depths and the sludge. The sludge being every political party, from independence to this day.
Feature photo: Courtesy of Jasmin Redžepi.
This article has been produced with the financial support of the “Balkan Trust for Democracy,” a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Belgrade. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Belgrade, the Balkan Trust for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, or its partners.