North Macedonia on a road to nowhere after the prime minister resigns

04 November 2021

After the immediate fog clears, it will become evident that the country has taken several steps back

By Branimir Jovanovic

image credit: Malezanov

  • The ruling Social Democrats suffered heavy losses in the local elections, leading the prime minister, Zoran Zaev, to resign.
  • The defeat came because of years of poor governance and many unkept promises by the government, but also because the EU did not let the country begin accession talks.
  • It is unclear what will happen in the immediate aftermath of the resignation, but the current government cannot last long.
  • The new right-wing government that will inevitably materialise is likely to weaken relations with EU and neighbours, as well as oversee a regression in civil liberties.
  • To alleviate this, the EU should step up the accession process for the country.

At the 2017 local elections in North Macedonia, the social democratic SDSM, led by Zoran Zaev, won 57 municipalities, including the capital, Skopje. The biggest opposition party, the right-wing VMRO-DPMNE, won just five. Four years later, SDSM, still led by Mr Zaev, won only 16 municipalities, while VMRO-DPMNE won 42, including Skopje. Or, in other words, SDSM lost 41 municipalities at the 2021 elections, 37 of which went to VMRO-DPMNE. In terms of the number of votes, SDSM’s support fell by around 40% from its 2017 level.

As soon the scale of SDSM’s defeat became apparent, Mr Zaev announced that he would resign as North Macedonia’s prime minister, as well as from the presidency of his party. His decision shocked many, but it was the only possible outcome after such a heavy defeat. It was not just that he had promised to resign if his party lost Skopje. He was perceived as having broken too many promises in previous years; his resignation was the only way for him to leave politics with at least a bit of dignity.

Years of poor governance lead to a landslide defeat

The scale of the SDSM losses surprised everyone, but the party’s defeat was certainly not unexpected. Huge public discontent had been building for years, after the government continually failed to keep its promises to reform the country. Although the Zaev-led SDSM had won all the elections since it came to power – the local elections in 2017, the presidential elections in 2019 and the parliamentary elections in 2020 – the party’s support had been gradually declining and the last two wins were close calls.

Mr Zaev’s supporters list several notable achievements: the fact that he toppled Nikola Gruevski, the authoritarian right-winger who had been ruling the country for 11 years; that he then had the courage to resolve the decades-long name dispute with neighbouring Greece; and that he subsequently oversaw North Macedonia’s entry into NATO membership. But to the nationalists, he will always be a traitor who sold the country’s name and its national identity.

Furthermore, the name change has seen the country come away empty-handed – three years after changing its name from ‘Macedonia’ to ‘North Macedonia’, it has still not begun EU accession talks. Although the failure to do so is clearly the EU’s responsibility, as it let France exercise a veto in 2019 and then Bulgaria in 2020, the North Macedonia public are disappointed and feel that the government has not done its job properly by failing to ensure that the talks got under way.

But it would be wrong to blame Mr Zaev’s decline only on the EU. Had he kept his promises that brought him to power after the 2016 elections, to ensure a better life for his country’s citizens, his support would still be high, despite the name change and despite the postponement of EU accession. He promised to bring justice, but let Mr Gruevski escape to Hungary only a couple of days before he was due to go to jail. In addition, he proclaimed that he was a social democrat and a leftist, but continued the neo-liberal economic policies of his predecessors.

Mr Zaev’s time in office was also marred by many corruption affairs, such as a major case that involved the country’s special public prosecutor, an owner of a TV station close to his party and an oligarch close to the previous regime. Or another one, still open, in which his government’s former secretary general is accused of abusing public money. Or another one, in which his previous deputy prime minister was found by the Anti-Corruption Commission to have concealed a private interest in a decision that the government made.

Mr Zaev’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic was also disastrous and brought the country to fourth place in the world in terms of the number of COVID-19 deaths per capita. His government never really had a clear idea how to manage the pandemic, introducing illogical restrictions, such as wearing masks in open spaces, while keeping bars open. The culmination was reached on 8 September, on the 30th anniversary of the country’s independence, when – shortly after state officials had praised the successes of the past three decades – a devastating fire broke out in a COVID hospital, taking the lives of 14 people. Nobody has yet been held responsible for the blaze.

Unclear what will happen in the short run

It is still unclear what will happen now, following Mr Zaev’s resignation, but there are several possible scenarios.

The first one is that the current ruling coalition will continue to govern the country, under a replacement prime minister. Mr Zaev himself cited this option when announcing his resignation. However, it is unclear who the new prime minister would be, as there is no obvious candidate for the post. It is also unclear who would be the new SDSM party leader, and whether this person would also be prime minister (and, if not, what the relationship between the two would be).

The second scenario is that the current opposition, led by VMRO-DPMNE, will secure a parliamentary majority. For this, it would need the support of just three more MPs, as the current government is supported by only 62 of the 120 MPs. This scenario seems very likely to materialise, at least eventually, given the rise of VMRO-DPMNE, as well as the fact that the current government coalition has many small parties with only one or two MPs, who may switch their support.

The third scenario is that there will be early parliamentary elections. It does not seem very likely that this will happen in the next six months, as the last elections were held only in July 2020, and all the major parties, except VMRO-DPMNE, have said that they are against this option. But it is also hard to imagine that a government led by SDSM will stay in power for another three years, given recent developments, and so early elections in the next year or two are very likely.

The fourth scenario is that Mr Zaev will change his mind and will withdraw his resignation. This might seem fanciful, but is certainly not impossible. His major coalition partners have said that they do not support his decision to resign and would like him to revoke it. Mr Zaev has not yet submitted his formal resignation to parliament, and there have been rumours that he will do so only in December, or perhaps even later.

Deterioration in the longer term

Irrespective of what happens in the immediate aftermath of Mr Zaev’s resignation, the longer-term consequences seem to be clear.

Support for SDSM has slumped, and whenever the new parliamentary elections are held, the opposition will win them by a substantial margin. This will bring changes both in foreign and domestic policy.

A VMRO-DPMNE-led government will be much more reserved towards the EU. One of the major features of its previous 11-year reign was that it distanced the country from the EU and pushed it towards Russia and China. During its recent years in opposition, the party was never openly against EU accession, but its stance was cool and unenthusiastic.

A VMRO-DPMNE administration would also be likely to worsen relations with neighbouring Bulgaria and Greece. VMRO-DPMNE fiercely criticised the current government for its policy towards Bulgaria, arguing that it is too soft. In terms of the country’s new name, although the party’s official position is that it cannot be changed now, it is likely to engage in petty provocations that will earn it cheap political points, while damaging relations with Greece. Moves of this nature have already happened in recent days, when some of the party’s new local representatives signed official statements using the old name of the country.

In terms of domestic policies, even the few improvements that have been made by the SDSM government – such as advancements in civil liberties, freedom of expression and media freedom – are likely to be reversed.

Most worrying of all, Mr Gruevski, who was sentenced to prison on corruption charges, after which he fled the country and was given asylum by Viktor Orbán’s administration in Hungary, might be pardoned and return to the country as a hero.

Speeding up of EU accession might limit the damage

North Macedonia, then, seems to be slowly taking the road to nowhere. Although the main reason for this is that the Zaev-led government failed to keep its promises, the EU must also shoulder much of the blame – it did not let the country start accession talks, even though it had met all the requirements to do so. The EU should now try to repair at least part of the damage, by starting the talks as soon as possible and speeding up the accession process. It will not stop the regression of the country, but it might alleviate it, and it might prevent a similar deterioration in other countries in the region.