Sunday's mayoral elections in North Macedonia launched a political crisis at the top level of government.
North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev announced his resignation following the crushing defeat of his governing Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, or SDSM, in the second round of the country’s local elections.
Zaev told a news conference at the party headquarters in Skopje on Sunday night “the responsibility for this outcome is mine and I’m resigning as prime minister and as leader of the Social Democratic Union.”
SDSM lost support in a number of key municipalities to the right-wing nationalist opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE.
Although official results were not yet in, Zaev conceded defeat in the most important contest — the mayoral race in the capital. Incumbent Petre Shilegov lost to independent challenger Danela Arsovska, backed by VMRO-DPMNE, who is Skopje's first-ever woman mayor.
At the same time, this election is marked by the lowest representation of women in mayoral seats since 2009 — when no women were elected as mayors — with only two women mayors, or 2.5 per cent of the 81 municipal heads elected into office.
Zaev congratulated Arsovska while vowing to remain in office until a new government is formed. He also rejected the possibility of snap parliamentary elections.
“We had two and a half unique years of hard work and economic success that all of our people and the country have benefited from. I plan to stay for a while to help reorganise a new government, together with an already-existing progressive majority which can only become bigger," Zaev said.
Candidates supported by the right-wing VMRO-DPMNE are set to receive at least half of the country’s 80 municipalities, with SDSM on course to win fewer than 20.
In addition to Skopje, SDSM lost the mayoral posts in Kumanovo and Bitola. Its coalition partner DUI, the biggest ethnic Albanian party in North Macedonia, lost Tetovo. These are the country’s largest cities.
The result is striking since, in the last municipal elections in 2017, SDSM won 57 contests and VMRO-DPMNE only five.
VMRO-DPMNE supporters celebrated late on Sunday in front of the party headquarters to the sound of ‘Bella Ciao,’ an Italian anti-fascist song that became synonymous with protests and rallies organised by their opponents, SDSM, in 2016.
Official results are expected later on Monday.
Hristijan Mickoski, the leader of VMRO-DPMNE, called for an early parliamentary election to be held.
“The governing party is now de-legitimised, and this is a new reality. The best way now is early elections,” Mickoski said, after declaring victory in the local election.
The last national election was held in July 2020 and a new one was set for 2024. But now everything depends on the country’s Parliament.
According to the constitution, the PM has to notify the country's president and the Parliament of his resignation.
The president — Stevo Pendarovski of SDSM — stated that he has not yet received Zaev's formal resignation. Parliament president Talat Xhaferi's cabinet also said that Zaev's resignation has not been formalised at this time.
Parliament will also have to vote to accept Zaev’s resignation, which is not a given.
The governing coalition has a small majority, with 62 seats in the 120-seat Parliament — 46 from the SDSM-led “We Can” coalition of 23 parties, 15 belonging to DUI and one from the Democratic Party of Albanians.
VMRO-DPMNE leads the “Renewal” coalition of allied small parties, which has 44 seats, while the Alliance of Albanians has 12 and the far-left and nationalist Left party have two seats.
If Parliament does accept Zaev's resignation, negotiations would begin to form a new cabinet under a different SDSM leader and that could take some time.
Organising snap elections would take several months, with April 2022 being the earliest date.
'Victim of his own optimism'
This is the first time in North Macedonia’s 30-year history that a prime minister resigned after a defeat in local elections.
The SDSM-led government faced concurrent domestic and international issues from day one that created "a perfect storm that resulted in terrible local election results," says journalist and analyst Sasho Ordanoski, who explained that Zaev "was the victim of his optimism and his ambitions."
"Zaev insisted that if he loses Skopje he’s not going to take responsibility for the government after that. That motivated many people to actually go and vote against him because he’s not divine — many people would not miss that opportunity to vote Zaev [out of office], and that’s what happened," Ordanoski said.
The disappointment with Zaev and his government is further compounded by the fact that many expected the country to flourish after SDSM took over from VMRO-DPMNE and its former leader Nikola Gruevski, who ruled over the country for an entire decade.
Gruevski served as the country's prime minister from 2006 until his resignation in 2016, after a series of protests and a wiretapping scandal uncovered by Zaev led to an EU-mediated agreement between the country's main parties, resulting in his resignation.
Gruevski fled North Macedonia in November 2017 in the midst of a corruption trial. He was sentenced to two years in prison for illegally influencing government officials in order to purchase a €600,000 bulletproof Mercedes Benz.
He remains a fugitive in Hungary, where he was given political asylum. Repeated requests for Gruevski's extradition have been rejected by Hungarian authorities, with many considering him to be under the protection of the country's prime minister Viktor Orbán.
In the meantime, another case has been brought against Gruevski back home in North Macedonia, accusing him of money laundering.
Two and a half years into SDSM's rule, the atmosphere is completely different from the early optimism that things might "suddenly become better," according to Ordanoski.
“Having in mind all of the changes that many people were expecting, regardless of whether that was a rational projection of things or not -- SDSM were promising to be the big change after the VMRO-DPMNE regime,” he said.
“Now the people are totally disappointed by everything.”
"The fact of the matter is that the very important areas like the health situation could have been handled better — the rate of deaths from COVID in North Macedonia is very high and the level of health care and vaccination rates are insufficient."
"There’s general tiredness and pessimism. People are not ready anymore to dwell deeper into the rational analysis of who-does-what and who-offers-what and what is for their better future," Ordanoski explained.
Tsunami from Brussels
During his first term, which lasted from 2017 to 2020, Zaev resolved the long-lasting dispute with Greece over the country's name by signing the Prespa Agreement in 2018.
Greece insisted on the name “Republic of Macedonia” and certain clauses in the country’s constitution implied territorial claims on Greece's northern province of Macedonia, forcing the country to use "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" as its formal name internationally since its independence from socialist Yugoslavia in 1991.
Under the agreement achieved with Greece’s then-leftist government, the country changed its name to “North Macedonia" — although its citizens and language are called "Macedonian” — and amended its constitution in exchange for Greek support for the country’s efforts to join the European Union and NATO. North Macedonia became NATO’s 30th member in March 2020.
Greece’s now governing centre-right New Democracy party, which opposed the agreement with North Macedonia, has committed to abide by it but VMRO-DPMNE still strongly opposes it.
In March 2020, neighbouring Bulgaria issued a veto against the beginning of North Macedonia's EU accession talks over a language dispute. Bulgaria claims that the language spoken in North Macedonia is a local variant of Bulgarian, and has since refused to lift the veto unless the language referred to as Macedonian is recognised as Bulgarian in the European Union.
In addition to the two vetos, the Union's constant rejection of North Macedonia as a viable membership contender also played a part in the Zaev government's demise, Ordanovski points out.
"This was a tsunami from Brussels with deadly political effects for this government, especially in the last year."
"The role of the EU in actually destroying this government is very big, and the effect is obvious. There are so many undelivered promises [from Brussels] that no government devoted to European agenda could have survived," he said.
VMRO-DPMNE's victory in local elections marks a return to nationalist politics, but also an increase in the number of European populists in power, which is welcomed by the likes of Orbán.
"Nobody can compete with VMRO-DPMNE in populist politics, and nationalists are always much better than those who are closer to the ideological centre. Populism is now fully back in power in Macedonian politics and this is probably the biggest European win by Orbán by quite some time," Ordanoski concluded.
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