Perspectives | North Macedonia

North Macedonia’s pre-election madness continues

By - 26.05.2020

No political opportunities missed, as snap vote date awaited.

North Macedonia has not been spared the presence of COVID-19 on its soil. Having rolled out similar lockdown and isolation measures to those introduced in the EU and the region, the country’s government does not miss the opportunity to flex their muscles against the people.

An early parliamentary election had already been scheduled for April 12, 2020, in line with former PM Zoran Zaev’s promise that he would call it in case North Macedonia was not given a start date for EU accession negotiations. However, the coronavirus thwarted these plans, laying the election and pre-election bickering aside, if only for a brief moment.

With the situation with the virus now calming down and the region slowly but surely opening up, the pre-election madness is back on track.

Before we proceed to explain the already complicated circumstances on North Macedonia’s political stage, it should be noted that a caretaker government is now in power. It was formed in accordance with the principle set out in the Pržino Agreement, a deal supposed to defuse the 2015 political crisis and usher in a parliamentary election. 

With this ad hoc solution foreseeing the caretaker government to include ministers from the opposition, the current minister of internal affairs is VMRO-DPMNE’s Naće Čulev. Such a state of affairs means that the opposition party is present in a very sensitive ministry, which in turn increases the chances of sabotage and quarrels between various political parties.

Even though experts have warned that the solution was indeed an ad hoc one and should not remain in place, it clearly goes in favor of both governing and opposition parties.

Intra- and inter-party disputes

At the coronavirus crisis onset, when the whole country mobilized to protect people at risk and North Macedonian society in general, Health Minister Venko Filipče appealed even for retired doctors to be on standby, should their help be needed. Hristijan Mickoski, the opposition VMRO-DPMNE’s leader, used the decision to score cheap political points by offering the services of his own party’s medical team to the government and hospitals.

Mickoski’s offer caused a furore on social media, where he was called out to reveal whether he pigeonholed doctors and medical staff with regard to their party affiliation.

In the first month of the COVID-19 response, the daily press conferences given by President Stevo Pendarovski and Health Minister Filipče gave hope and some sort of security, reassuring us that the state is — more or less — functioning and that we may finally have the right people in the right places.

A message was hanging in the air: Stay home because we’ve got no beds, medical staff, or medication to save you.

Still, citizens were aware that drastic measures such as the long curfew and hefty fines for rule-breaking were very much justified since the local healthcare system had completely crumbled down over the course of transition in recent decades, and had no capacity or necessary equipment to cater for a large number of COVID-19 patients.

A message was hanging in the air: Stay home because we’ve got no beds, medical staff, or medication to save you.

Unfortunately, the intra-party enmities soon came to the surface.

Maksim Dimitrievski, mayor of Kumanovo and a Social Democratic Union member, repeatedly called on the authorities to lock the city down, much in the same manner as Debar, a town in the west of the country that had been placed under lockdown for two weeks due to a high number of COVID-19 cases. His requests fell on deaf ears and Kumanovo stayed open.

Within a few days, a government team comprising five ministers and the acting PM Oliver Spasovski visited Kumanovo to check on the situation as the number of infections continued to rise, before Mayor Dimitrievski announced on his Facebook page that he had been tested for coronavirus and was now awaiting results. They would come back negative, but the conflicts within the party had been laid bare nevertheless. 

Owing to the fact that he reported the results after their visit, the ministers had to be quarantined, which was interpreted by the public as the mayor delivering a blow to his own party and the government alike since they had failed to meet his requests for closing off Kumanovo.

What is more important: elections or health?

As the COVID-19 crisis continued, political parties increasingly demanded that the elections be held as soon as possible.

VMRO-DPMNE first lashed out at the Social Democrats, deeming them unfit to save the country while adding that the sooner the elections were held, the better. A few days later, the former changed their tune — they drew attention to people’s health and labelled the election as a less important matter.

The Social Democrats, on the other hand, want the election to be held immediately after the state of emergency is lifted, President Pendarovski having extended it until the end of May, after it was initially introduced in March.

The party leaders' meeting looked like a meeting of several tribal chiefs deciding on the fates of their tribes without any consultation whatsoever with the people themselves.

Speaker of the Assembly Talat Xhaferi has rejected continuous public calls for him to bring together the dissolved parliament in order to establish control over the government in times of crisis. He said that he no longer had the mandate to invite MPs, who were no longer MPs following the dissolution in mid-February.

But according to the Constitution, MPs continue to hold office until a new government is formed. 

Meanwhile, the parties have already met to discuss a new election date. The party leaders’ meeting looked like a meeting of several tribal chiefs deciding on the fates of their tribes without any consultation whatsoever with the people themselves.

Oliver Derkovski, the State Election Commission president, has said he will not sign an order to organize elections within two months of the state of emergency being lifted, while President Pendarovski claims that terminating the state of emergency would trigger an election deadline of 22 days — less than two months.

To make things even more complicated, the Commission published an election process protocol allowing party activists to go to people’s homes as part of their campaigns. The public reaction was as follows: Don’t you dare show up at our doors.

Amongst all of this, the most recent disgrace was brought on North Macedonian citizens by the judicial system last week, when the entire Law on the Prohibition of Discrimination was repealed; it happened two days before May 17, the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia (IDAHOBIT) and other phobias based on gender and sexual orientation.

The law had been introduced by the Zaev-led government, and included a section that clearly defined sexual orientation as a basis for discrimination. In the previous version of the law, sexual orientation was listed under the umbrella category “other forms of discrimination,” which had made this form of discrimination rather difficult to prove.

The ever-lasting political crisis in North Macedonia has pushed citizens to the edge of their patience.

The repeal was based on a legal, yet very ironic oversight — the Sobranje, Macedonia’s parliament, had approved the law with only 55 votes instead of the required 61-vote simple majority. This was overlooked by the various Sobranje commissions. The president’s advisers warned him of the mistake, but he signed the law nevertheless. 

Unfortunately, the Commission for Protection Against Discrimination then used the opportunity to refer the decision to the Constitutional Court, so the Court was compelled to repeal the said law. 

This is a big blow not only to the LGBT community in North Macedonia, but also to the country’s European aspirations since the law was one of the acts that is fundamental to starting negotiations with the EU.

The ever-lasting political crisis in North Macedonia has pushed citizens to the edge of their patience. If a large number of them had previously been tranquilizer addicts, there is a high chance that they will now become hooked on anti-anxiety medication after the situation with COVID-19.

Life in North Macedonia can briefly be described through a Chinese proverb, more akin to a curse: May you live in interesting times. 

These interesting times, however, are taking their toll on our health.

Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.