Mace­do­nia votes hope to end po­lit­i­cal cri­sis

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Mace­do­nians were vot­ing yes­ter­day in an early gen­eral elec­tion in a bid to end a deep po­lit­i­cal cri­sis that has roiled the small Balkan coun­try for nearly two years. The vote was called as part of a Euro­pean Union-bro­kered deal be­tween Mace­do­nia’s four main po­lit­i­cal par­ties af­ter a mass sur­veil­lance scan­dal erupted in Fe­bru­ary 2015 and sparked ri­val street protests.

Ac­cord­ing to elec­toral of­fi­cials, vot­ing at 3,490 polling sta­tions was go­ing on smoothly and with­out ma­jor in­ci­dents. In or­der to en­sure cred­i­bil­ity, a voter photo ap­pears next to the name on voter lists, a State Elec­toral Com­mis­sion mem­ber told AFP. On a sunny day in Skopje, the el­derly were among the first to cast their bal­lots along with young cou­ples with chil­dren at a polling sta­tion in the city cen­tre.

“I ex­pect this agony to end,” af­ter the elec­tions, 55-year old Zo­ran Milevski said, re­fer­ring to the po­lit­i­cal cri­sis. “Who­ever wins I hope will bring back sta­bil­ity,” he told AFP at a school-turned-polling sta­tion, adding that new govern­ment should fo­cus on the econ­omy. Elec­toral of­fi­cials said turnout was 9.59 per­cent three hours af­ter polling sta­tions opened at 7:00am (0600 GMT ), sim­i­lar to the one in the last par­lia­men­tary elec­tions held two years ago.

The scan­dal led Nikola Gruevski of the na­tion­al­ist VMRO-DPMNE party to step down, af­ter nearly 10 years in power, to pave the way for a snap elec­tion. Yes­ter­day’s vote, which was twice de­layed ow­ing to op­po­si­tion and in­ter­na­tional con­cerns of fraud, pitches the ex-PM against his neme­sis, So­cial Demo­crat Zo­ran Zaev. It was Zaev who re­leased tapes last year that ap­peared to show the govern­ment wire­tap­ping thou­sands of peo­ple, in­clud­ing jour­nal­ists and re­li­gious of­fi­cials, as well as cor­rup­tion at the high­est level.

Gruevski de­nied the claims and ac­cused Zaev of plan­ning a coup with foreign sup­port. “Zo­ran Zaev un­der­es­ti­mates the cit­i­zens of Mace­do­nia... He un­der­es­ti­mates every­one with his games,” the de­fi­ant for­mer premier told a flag-wav­ing crowd of sup­port­ers in a Skopje sub­urb on Thurs­day night. Zaev has pitched the vote as a choice be­tween “doom or life” and pledged to stop an ex­o­dus of young peo­ple from the for­mer Yu­goslav repub­lic, which re­mains one of Europe’s poor­est coun­tries.

Un­pre­dictable

Al­though crit­ics de­scribe 46-year-old Gruevski as a cor­rupt au­thor­i­tar­ian who has clamped down on democ­racy and me­dia free­dom, his party topped opin­ion plls ahead of the elec­tion. There also re­mained a sub­stan­tial num­ber of un­de­cided vot­ers, who could swing the re­sult in the coun­try of two mil­lion peo­ple.

“This elec­tion is one of the most un­pre­dictable to take place in Mace­do­nia,” Zaneta Tra­jkoska, di­rec­tor at the In­sti­tute of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Stud­ies, told AFP. “Who­ever wins the elec­tion will have huge chal­lenges and is­sues to solve.” A hand­ful of eth­nic Al­ba­nian po­lit­i­cal groups are vy­ing to be­come the ju­nior part­ner in the new rul­ing coali­tion, in a coun­try where a quar­ter of the pop­u­la­tion is Al­ba­nian. Al­ba­nian in­sur­gents fought Mace­do­nian forces in an up­ris­ing 15 years ago, lead­ing to an agree­ment giv­ing the mi­nor­ity group more rights.

‘Un­der pres­sure’

Mace­do­nia as­pires to join both the EU and NATO but ac­ces­sion has been blocked by Athens ow­ing to a dis­pute over the coun­try’s name-Greece has a north­ern re­gion also called Mace­do­nia. The lat­est EU progress re­port on Mace­do­nia said democ­racy and rule of law had been “con­stantly chal­lenged” in par­tic­u­lar by “state cap­ture”, mean­ing the con­sid­er­able in­flu­ence of pri­vate in­ter­ests on de­ci­sions of the state.

An­a­lysts how­ever sug­gest Europe has pushed aside con­cerns be­cause of Gruevski’s role as a “gate­keeper” in the refugee cri­sis, in which hun­dreds of thou­sands of mi­grants have en­tered land­locked Mace­do­nia from Greece on their way to western Europe. The refugee wave has put added pres­sure on the al­ready strained bud­get in Mace­do­nia, where the av­er­age net wage is around 360 eu­ros a month and un­em­ploy­ment stands at nearly 24 per­cent.

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