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PoliticsNorth Macedonia

North Macedonia: Frustrated voters set to punish government

May 7, 2024

On May 8, North Macedonia will vote in parliamentary and presidential elections that will determine whether the country keeps its pro-EU course and maintains the fragile peace between its two largest ethnic communities.

A crowd of people, some of whom are holding Macedonian flags
On May 8, 1.8 million voters in North Macedonia will elect not only a new parliament but also the country's next presidentImage: Petr Stojanovski /DW

Pre-election polls and the outcome of the first round of the presidential election on April 24 indicate that a convincing victory is within reach for the opposition nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party in North Macedonia.

Opposition candidate Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, a 70-year-old retired law professor, gathered twice as many votes as Stevo Pendarovski, North Macedonia's incumbent president and candidate of the ruling Social Democrats, who received less than 20% — a mere 180,000 votes.

Dissatisfied with the country's stalled EU accession process, weak economy and pervasive corruption, many voters decided to support the opposition candidate in the first round of the presidential election, which analysts see as a litmus test not only for the second round, but also for the parliamentary election.

Presidential candidate Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova gestures as she speaks into a microphone at a lectern
Presidential candidate Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova got twice as many votes as the incumbent president in the first round of the presidential election at the end of AprilImage: Boris Georgievski/DW

"I think a change of government is very likely," Daniel Braun, head of the Skopje office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which has close ties to Germany's center-right CDU, told German public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk, "primarily due to the fact that the government's record is disastrous in many areas. Corruption and the dysfunctionality of the state can be seen everywhere."

Broken promises and a controversial name change

The Social Democrats came to power in 2017, promising NATO membership, the start of accession negotiations with the EU and a fight against corruption. Only one of these promises was fulfilled: North Macedonia joined NATO in 2020 after reaching a compromise with Greece which saw the country add "North" to its constitutional name.

This difficult compromise with its southern neighbor, which angered nationalists in North Macedonia and led to mass protests, did not help open the doors of the EU to the small Balkan state of 2 million people.

Bulgaria vetoed negotiations with the EU

Then, in November 2020, Bulgaria vetoed the start of negotiations with the EU, demanding historical and cultural concessions that many Macedonians believe directly interfere with their identity. The dispute was only partially resolved after an agreement — mediated by France — was reached in June 2022 that saw Bulgaria's demands included in the negotiating framework between North Macedonia and the EU. The new condition for the opening of negotiations was for North Macedonia to include the small Bulgarian minority of 3,000 people in the constitution as a constituent nation.

President of North Macedonia Stevo Pendarovski speaks into a microphone at a lectern
President of North Macedonia Stevo Pendarovski came a distant second in the first round of the presidential election, getting less than 20% of the voteImage: Boris Georgievski/DW

The necessary parliamentary majority to change the constitution was not reached. Negotiations with the EU remain at an impasse. The nationalist opposition led by VMRO-DPMNE rejected the new compromise and used ethnic Macedonians' sense of insecurity to mobilize against the government.

Weak economy a major issue for voters

Rampant corruption and the government's inability to pull the country out of economic stagnation and high inflation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia's war in Ukraine have also bolstered the opposition.

According to the World Bank, North Macedonia will end 2024 as the country with the lowest economic growth in the Western Balkans region for the second year in a row, and with the largest budget deficit. Inflation rates in 2022 and 2023 were among the highest in Europe. In 2023, North Macedonia advanced two points on the list of Transparency International, but is still seen as having "serious corruption problems."

Populist slogans from the opposition leader

Opposition leader Hristijan Mickoski is promising voters that he will "return Macedonia to them again." Both Mickoski and presidential candidate Siljanovska-Davkova refuse to use the adjective "North" in the name of the country and have pledged to continue not doing so if they win the elections. Such a move could reignite the conflict with Greece, which has repeatedly reacted in recent years whenever state officials did not adhere to the 2018 compromise.

People walk past pigeons and a souvenir stall on a street in North Macedonia
According to the World Bank, North Macedonia will have the lowest economic growth of all countries in the Western Balkans this yearImage: Petr Stojanovski /DW

Mickoski, whose party has refused to accept the compromise with Bulgaria, has said little on the campaign trail on the issue of the inclusion of the Bulgarian minority in the constitution, stating only that the issue should be analyzed after a government is formed.

Tension between main opposition and ethnic Albanian parties

Although neither the Greece nor Bulgaria issues have dominated the campaign, Mickoski's decision to enter into a direct conflict with the largest ethnic Albanian party in the country, the DUI, has revived fears of new ethnic divisions in the country.

Mickoski has said that he will not enter a coalition with DUI, because he considers it to be corrupt. The mostly Muslim, ethnic Albanian minority makes up more than a quarter of the population, and a government coalition between the leading ethnic Albanian and Macedonian Orthodox parties is seen as a guarantor of the country's stability.

Ever since the Social Democrats–DUI coalition took power in 2017, ethnic Albanians have been elected to senior posts such as speaker of parliament, minister of foreign affairs, and even prime minister for the last three months of this government's mandate. This distribution of functions has led Macedonian nationalists to complain of the "Albanization of the state."

Hristijan Mickoski smiles and raises his right fist in the air while a group of seven supporters behind him applaud
Opposition leader Hristijan Mickoski of the VMRO-DPMNE party, which polls suggest could win the parliamentary election on May 8Image: Petr Stojanovski/DW

In an attempt to placate the ethnic Albanian community, Mickoski has said that the second-largest Albanian political alliance, composed of several small ethnic Albanian opposition parties, could enter the future government.

Social Democrats play the EU card

Despite their heavy defeat in the first round of the presidential election on April 24, the ruling Social Democrats have held fast to their slogan "We are not giving up on the European future." However, polls indicate that this message is not reaching voters, who are tired of compromises with neighbors and an uncertain future in the EU.

As Aleksandar Krzhalovski, director of the Macedonian Center for International Cooperation, told DW, "the government put everything on one card" in the campaign and "neglected all other important issues, especially the fight against crime and corruption, which citizens and international reports see as a major problem."

Former prime minister and leader of the Social Democrats Dimitar Kovacevski apologized during the campaign for mistakes made in recent years, but issued a stark warning to voters.

"These elections will practically set the future of Macedonia: whether we will move towards a progressive society, to the EU, or whether we are headed to some past time when we had isolation and ethnic conflicts," he said.

Edited by: Aingeal Flanagan

Head shot of a bearded man (Boris Georgievski) in a dark blue blazer
Boris Georgievski Boris Georgievski is head of Deutsche Welle's Macedonian Service.