Macedonia votes hope to end political crisis
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.
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.
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.