November 2021

By Pero Jolevski

This October, the Republic of North Macedonia held municipal elections for mayors and city councils resulting in a victory for the country’s largest opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE. The governing party, the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), suffered a major defeat in the capital city, Skopje, and other municipalities that have been traditionally pro-SDSM. To put this in context, the center-right coalition led by VMRO-DPMNE won 42 municipalities and the capital city, while the center-left coalition led by SDSM won 16 municipalities. In comparison to the previous municipal elections, VMRO-DPMNE gained an additional 37 municipalities, while SDSM lost in 41 municipalities and Skopje. Smaller parties such as GROM, BESA, and DOM/LDP, which in the previous local governance did not have any mayoral posts also won one municipality each.

These municipal elections contrast with last year’s national parliamentary elections, in which the governing party SDMS finished first, winning 46 out of 120 seats. SDSM’s political efforts in brokering the so-called “Prespa Agreement” in 2018, which led to the country’s official name change and eventual accession to NATO did not significantly damage the support of the center-left party. However, the lack of economic growth and failure to start negotiations for the promised accession with the European Union ultimately took its toll.

The elections reflect growing pushback against the ruling SDSM party and its coalition partner, Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), which could lead to early parliamentary elections in 2022.

What happened?

SDSM’s defeat in the municipal elections goes deeper, in particular its inability to successfully implement ongoing and new capital infrastructure projects, the delayed COVID-19 vaccination rollout, slow reforms and lack of progress in the judiciary, the “revanchist” attitude related towards the previous government, and, most importantly, its failure to resolve the continuous blockage of the country to start accession negotiations with the EU.

Since 2017, when SDSM formed a coalition in parliament to form a new government, most major infrastructure projects and investment activities by the previous government were put on hold. This included the construction of new highways as well as development projects in the nation’s capital, Skopje. Buildings were left unfinished, some remain stripped down on the main square in Skopje for over five years, and construction sites were left unattended for months. Roads that are critical infrastructure have been left in dire conditions, while those that are being refurbished have been prolonged and not completed for years.

While many countries have struggled with the management of and response to the COVID-19 pandemic, North Macedonia was one of the last countries in the region to purchase vaccines for mass vaccination, rather than relying on small batch donations from foreign countries. As a result, citizens have resorted to traveling to neighboring Serbia to get vaccinated. Most tragically, on the 25th anniversary of the country’s independence, a modular hospital for COVID-19 patients caught fire and burned down, costing the lives of over a dozen people.

Moreover, this summer the country was faced with fighting the largest wildfires in its history. Firefighting aircrafts were left sitting on the tarmac because they hadn’t been serviced for over two years, leaving the country to rely on foreign support and firefighters from Austria, Slovenia, and Romania.

Overall, poor management during time of national crisis and the lack infrastructure projects in both municipalities as well as country-wide ones are the primary reasons for the defeat of the SDSM government.

What's next?

In a speech on the evening of the election, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev announced he would resign from his role in the government and as leader of the SDSM party. While an official resignation has not been submitted to the parliament or the party, it is likely that he will remain in his position and may be re-elected as a leader of the party to strengthen its base.

Despite political differences between the various parties in the parliament, except for two members of parliament from the radical party, The Left, both the governing and opposition parties are pro-European Union and NATO. The blockage to begin EU negotiations has been a major foreign policy setback for the current government and with recent cautiously optimistic remarks of the Prime Minister of the Netherlands during his visit to North Macedonia, there is new potential for the country to be unblocked and to begin EU negotiations. If North Macedonia begins EU negotiations later this year, it is likely that the governing SDSM will strengthen its domestic base.

On the other hand, last week the opposition led by VMRO-DPMNE submitted a vote of no confidence in the parliament. The opposition managed to secure 60 votes, missing only one vote to form a new majority. Given the results of the most recent municipal elections, there is a growing demand from the opposition parties for new elections. If the current government fails to begin negotiations with the EU, it is likely that the country will go to early parliament elections this coming spring 2022 to stabilize the split and divisions between the parties in the parliament.

Nonetheless, the country and its citizens remain pro-European and the potential start of negotiations with the EU would bring new hope for the country as well as to the region, signaling that EU enlargement and accession is still open for the Western Balkans.