Division and Apathy in North Macedonia

Division and Apathy in North Macedonia

On 5th May, voters in North Macedonia went to the polls to choose a new president. It was the first election held since the country changed its legal name from the Republic of Macedonia (domestically)/the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to the Republic of North Macedonia (internationally) in January 2019. The ruling Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) candidate, Stevo Pendarovski, won an unconvincing victory.

Regime change

The winning candidate Stevo Pendarovski will replace President Gjorge Ivanov, who was appointed during the previous governing regime led by Nikola Gruevski, who is now living in exile in Hungary. Gruevski’s government was toppled in 2016 amid large protests and accusations of corruption.

The government’s recent decision to change the name of the country to the Republic of North Macedonia exerted a major influence on the Presidential election. Greece had vetoed the country’s membership of NATO and the EU for years, arguing that the previous name of ‘Republic of Macedonia’ implied a territorial claim on northern Greece, which is also known as Macedonia. The current government finally settled this issue by passing the name change in parliament and then confirming it in a referendum, although the referendum was marred by low turnout. The name change is the biggest expression so far of the government’s pro-Western stance, a strong contrast to the previous, more nationalist VMRO-DPMNE-led government . The government is hoping that North Macedonia will join NATO and the EU as soon as possible now that Greece’s veto is no longer an obstacle.

The previous President Gjorge Ivanov sought to block the country’s recent name change, following the lead of his previous party VMRO-DPMNE (presidents must relinquish their party membership) and its leader Gruevski. Ivanov never signed the bill that changed the name of the country, despite the fact that practical changes like the changing of road signs had already taken place. President Pendarovski will sign the bill soon after he takes office.

VMRO-DPMNE’s candidate, Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, promised to hold a second referendum and revert to the country’s previous name. As such the presidential election served as a proxy for showing approval or disapproval of the name change and for the government who agreed to it.

An unconvincing victory for the ruling party

The SDSM’s candidate won in the second round by 58,488 votes. This is a small margin of victory; it is less than the 79,888 received in the first round by the third candidate Blerim Reka who was only supported by the Albanian minority. In the first round Pendarovski led by only 4,250 votes. It was a victory, but not one that will fill his party with confidence. Only two years ago the government won an overwhelming victory in local elections. This narrow presidential victory suggests a significant fall in support for the government.

SDSM and its coalition partners have only been in government for 2 years. Receiving such a narrow victory so early in the government’s term does not bode well for their governing mandate. Nor does it suggest much eagerness among voters for their pro-EU, pro-NATO project in North Macedonia, which the name change was only the first step. The government will need to spend political capital on reforms across all areas of the economy if it wishes to move closer to EU membership. On this showing, it may not have enough popular support to carry out the major reforms needed for EU membership, some of which are likely to be controversial and unpopular. Perhaps too much support was spent on solving the difficult name change, an issue which has haunted North Macedonian politics since it gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

Political division and low turnout

The presidential election saw a low turnout of 41.67% in the first round. There were fears that the second round would not reach the 40% turnout necessary for the result to be valid. This suggests a great deal of apathy among voters in North Macedonia, and that many are not enthused by either of the major parties.

Those that did vote were fairly evenly divided between the two main parties. This reflects the polarisation of Macedonian society regarding the name change. It is the key stone achievement of the current government, but the opposition candidate referred to it as a betrayal.

The professed benefits of the name change – NATO membership and EU membership – have not yet materialised. EU membership in particular remains a long way off. NATO membership will happen soon, but it will not affect voters’ everyday lives. Promised increases in wages and living standards have also not occurred.

Meanwhile investigations into corruption, which the public sees as a major problem in North Macedonia, are perceived by opposition supporters as politicised. This prevents them from being seen as fair and necessary achievements of the government in tackling an issue that affects people’s everyday lives.

So, the electorate as a whole was somewhat apathetic towards the presidential election, but those who did vote were firmly entrenched behind the two main parties and their respective stances on the name change.

The ethnic dimension

The close presidential election result reflects the situation in Parliament, where VMRO-DPMNE is the largest single party but the SDSM-led government holds a small majority thanks to its Albanian coalition partners. To secure Albanian parties’ support, the SDSM has promised more rights to the Albanian minority, especially including offering to make Albanian an official language.

Pendarovski relied on Albanian votes to win election. In the first round, many Albanian voters backed the only ethnic Albanian candidate, Blerim Reka. In the second round however, Albanians overwhelmingly backed Pendarovski, with results as stark as 6,543 votes for him versus 44 for Siljanovska-Davkova in Lipkovo and other mostly Albanian municipalities. Siljanovska-Davkova has argued that this reflects deepening political and ethnic divisions that could threaten to destabilise the country.

The Albanian community does not usually vote as a homogeneous block; there are 5 separate Albanian parties in Macedonia’s parliament. The nature of the presidential election, however, with its two rounds encouraged Albanian voters to converge behind Pendarovski, lacking an Albanian candidate. In addition, for the first time, the largest Albanian party the DUI did not field its own candidate, but backed Pendarovski instead.

VMRO-DPMNE focused their campaign on the name change. During its years in power VMRO-DPMNE relied on the DUI to secure Albanian votes, rather than increasing its own appeal to Albanians. This has left it as a popular party among the ethnic Macedonian majority, but struggling to win a majority of all voters. It hardly attracted any Albanian votes in either the first or the second round. This greatly handicapped the party’s bid for the presidency.


These elections have highlighted the political apathy of much of Macedonian society, and a deep division among those who are politically active. The election results also revealed the vital importance of Albanian voters to the ruling coalition.

With the previous obstructionist president removed, Albanians will expect progress on the issue of language rights. This is a controversial topic among ethnic Macedonians and will further deepen the political divide. VMRO-DPMNE will claim it is evidence that the SDSM is betraying Macedonia’s national identity. The Albanian community already enjoys significant legal rights. VMRO-DPMNE will argue that granting them more autonomy will lead to political instability. Despite these damaging accusations, SDSM will have to push forward with language reforms in order to keep their Albanian coalition partners and voters onside.

Following their defeat in this presidential election, VMRO-DPMNE may have to pivot their focus away from the idea of a new referendum on the name change. The next parliamentary election is scheduled for 2020, by which time North Macedonia will have been functioning under its new name for 2 years. It will also have likely acceded to NATO under this name. By this point many voters may not have the appetite for another referendum.

SDSM, meanwhile, will be under continued pressure to demonstrate that its reforms are bringing economic benefits. EU membership looks distant even though it was a big part of the campaign to change the country’s name. The party’s support among both Macedonians and Albanians could be eroded if tangible material benefits do not materialise soon.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Luke Bacigalupo

Luke Bacigalupo is a political analyst currently based in Belgrade, Serbia. He holds degrees in South Eastern European Studies and Modern History from the University of Belgrade and the University of Oxford, respectively. He has previously worked as a political reporter at the Office of the EU Special Representative in Kosovo and at UNDP in Serbia.