Macedonia’s political culture led to the failings of the referendum

By - 01.10.2018

Low turnout reveals the obstacles for democratic citizenship and reforms.

With more than half a million citizens voting in support of the name change, the referendum still did not pass.

Reaching the 50 percent +1 required to make the consultative referendum legally valid was a longshot from the beginning. Indeed, the whole referendum was built on premises that in many ways guaranteed its failure. But, as an exercise of people’s democratic participation, it leads to many lessons on the hardships that Macedonia will face moving ahead.

Yet, the numbers are indicative and do give some cause for optimism, which is why I could not be found crying this morning. Out of 666,743 citizens who voted, (or 36.91 percent of those on the voting list), 609,813 (91.46 percent) voted for, and 37,700 (5.65 percent) voted against the premise posed by the referendum. It had read: “Are you for EU and NATO membership by accepting the Agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?”

Based on the data of the State Election Commission, no single municipality was lower than 80 percent in support of the agreement. In terms of community representation, it has been noted that over 260,000 ethnic Albanians voted in the election, debunking several claims of a low turnout amongst Albanians.

Indeed, the ethnically mixed municipalities have the highest turnout, or are at least comparable to the eastern and central municipalities of the country. Analysts and political parties were quick to note that in terms of real numbers, no winning coalition or party has ever had more votes than the number of supporters in favor of the agreement. However, that does not make the referendum either legally or technically valid.

Reactions by political parties

Due to the conundrum of the numbers, political parties have reacted in different ways to the results. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev gave two speeches yesterday, one right after the closing of the polls when it had become evident that the number of voters was not sufficient, and one more coherent speech after 80 percent of the votes had been counted. He noted that the ball was now in the members of parliament’s court: This match will ultimately be decided in the Assembly.

This was going to be the case anyway, considering that the referendum was only consultative and not obligatory (but tell that to non-Brexit voters, who also voted in a consultative referendum). The job of MPs however, will be harder in passing the Prespa Agreement considering that the referendum was not legally valid.

The government and other supporting political parties, including key ministers, have sought to shape the narrative based on numbers, claiming that the large number of voters in favor of the agreement clearly gives them a mandate to move onwards with the strategy.

The PM, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Interior Affairs have already made open calls to move beyond party lines and vote in the country’s interest. The tone of comments made by the main ethnic Albanian coalition party was along the same lines.

With these two opposing narratives, the weeks ahead will guarantee many feisty parliamentary sessions, and in no way give us a clear view of the future.

The leading Macedonian opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE, decided to go another route. Their obstructionist strategy throughout the referendum campaign did not set a tone where a debate could be had without polarization, and the speech that party leader, Hristijan Mickovski, made last night struck all the wrong chords. The speech was filled with angry rhetoric and a call for the resignation of the PM.

Mickovski’s narrative rested on the spin that the failure to reach a turnout of 50 percent was a failure of the PM and his government. This rhetoric had been a damaging narrative throughout the campaign, as it turned the issue from a vote on the country’s name into a vote of confidence in the government, which might have led many citizens either not to vote, or to vote against the agreement.

With these two opposing narratives, the weeks ahead will guarantee many feisty parliamentary sessions, and in no way give us a clear view of the future. If the agreement fails to obtain a two thirds majority in the Assembly, the PM noted that early elections would be called before November, allowing for appropriate time for their Greek counterparts to also vote on the agreement by the agreed deadline in December.

The weeks ahead will be crucial in setting the course for the future orientation of the country, and citizens might get a chance to have another say in once again choosing their representatives earlier than expected.

Did we wake up to a new country?

The low percentage did leave a bitter taste in many supporters of the agreement’s mouths this morning. While there is comfort in the large number of votes in favor of the deal, the failure of citizens to give a clear mandate is no simple matter. I say it is a failure of the citizens, because in many ways we did fail.

In the current political climate in Macedonia, the referendum was a leap of faith by any political or social standard. The threshold in terms of real numbers was very high. Out of a country of 2,022,547 (based on the 2002 Census) the number of voters is around 1.8 million, which set the threshold at 903,169 — a very high, and some argue unrealistic, number to reach.

The fact that the government went ahead with the vote without first doing its ‘spring cleaning’ of the voter list was a very precarious move, and ultimately a fatal one for the referendum.

The issue with the voter list, however, are not only the dead and their voting ghosts. Social media was abuzz with people noting the fact that so many people are leaving Macedonia in search of a better future. One meme read: “You cannot expect people to go out and vote on the referendum, if in the country there are no people.”

The worst part of it all is, we do not know how many people we have in the country, as Macedonia has not had a census since 2002, making any calculation of legitimacy in numbers, vague.

Perhaps the referendum and the setting of a common EU path was seen as a one-move-fix-all approach, but it did not turn out that way.

Another aspect that has been noted in the wake of the results is the level of polarization in Macedonian society. However, this polarization is nothing new. It has been part of the Macedonian public sphere ever since the political crisis that the country witnessed in its recent past.

Polarization was evident in the two protest camps in the summer of 2015, one demonstrating against the then VMRO-led government outside of the building that housed it, and the other supporting that same government in front of the Macedonian Assembly.

Polarization was evident on April 27, 2017 when protestors stormed the parliament during the swearing in of the new government. Polarization was also evident with the President’s disruptions to the adoption of the Law on Languages.

Polarization is also evident now, to no one’s surprise. The time needed for this polarization to heal is long, and so far, no government reforms have attempted to assuage it. Perhaps the referendum and the setting of a common EU path was seen as a one-move-fix-all approach, but it did not turn out that way (yet).

On the other hand, the argument that these things should be put to rest until we have completed the reforms set out by the Priebe Commission are also misleading. No government can or should be a one issue government.

Why did the citizens fail?

We cannot pinpoint one phenomenon that made the referendum fail. The boycotters shout loudly that it failed to pass because of people boycotting, however we cannot make any such claims.

The reasons for not going out to vote are numerous. The boycotters played a part, but so did voter apathy, a flawed campaign, a lack of information, fear, and voter suppression (many voters in the diaspora and in certain municipalities noted that voters were being photographed outside their polling stations by boycotters). Others decided not to vote in order to “punish” the government.

All of these reasons, and not only these, informed many citizens.

However, one crucial reason why I believe that this referendum did not receive a higher turnout is due to the democratic culture we have in the country. As a result of a lack of vision and opportunity offered by political parties, we have often had to choose and vote based on immediate expectations: ‘I vote for you, you give me X.’ With the referendum, no such logic existed.

As I entered the polling station, there was only one single observer, something unheard of in any previous vote in Macedonia. No party observer to judge my ‘allegiance’ and provide support for ‘my reward.’ We ultimately failed to vote on an issue that provides very little immediate results but has a very high impact on our future. Something that is not immediately tangible but of utmost importance to all our lives.

We failed to wrap our heads around just how important this decision is, and I hope we will not have to suffer this lack of judgement.

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.