The Challenge of Building ‘One Society’ Beckons for PM Zaev

Having crushed his political opponents at the local level, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev now must demonstrate his vision of “one society” – and develop a strategy to achieve it.

The second round of municipal elections in Macedonia, held on October 29th, compounded the sweeping victory two weeks ago of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), led by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, over the party of his predecessor, Nikola Gruevski, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE). The extent of the sweep was shocking: SDSM won 18 of the remaining municipalities to VMRO-DPMNE’s 2. Former strongholds such as the eastern town of Štip, and the Skopje municipalities of Gazi Baba and Butel, fell to the SDSM juggernaut. Gruevski decried the results as fraudulent and illegitimate, constituting the “rape of the state,” and called for new general elections and a special prosecutor to review the December general elections and municipal elections.

At least as significant was the reconsolidation of the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), which won most of the municipalities in which it faced other ethnic Albanian parties: the Alliance of Albanians and BESA. The Alliance of Albanians, led by former Struga Mayor and MP Zijadin Sela, was instrumental in the coalition which aligned around SDSM; Sela was beaten unconscious in the VMRO-DPMNE-engineered attack on parliament on April 27. In the second round, BESA (which aligned with the coalition without joining it) and the Alliance of Albanians formed a coalition. Backed by Zaev, who actively campaigned on DUI’s behalf, and the SDSM, the DUI stanched the bleeding from December and rebounded. It held onto Tetovo and Skopje’s old quarter, Čair, but lost Gostivar, where former DUI Vice-President Nevzat Bejta was defeated by Alliance’s Arben Taravari. Sela, running for his prior job as mayor in Struga, was defeated by DUI candidate Ramiz Merko, who was supported by SDSM. While the Alliance won three municipalities and its vote numbers increased in the aggregate, this defeat provided the biggest plot twist of the election.

Prime Minister Zaev and the SDSM now have unchallenged political momentum. While there are no immediate indications that early general elections are in store, it is a certainty that some in the party – and outside it – will clamor for consolidating the parliamentary majority. The intra-coalition frictions posed by SDSM’s alignment with DUI, coupled with the Alliance’s second round coalition with BESA, and followed by the rise of nationalistic rhetoric from these parties may pose difficulties. However, the majority may yet be augmented by defections from other parties – even VMRO-DPMNE or its allies. Whether building a majority with such damaged goods would bolster SDSM’s aura of a fresh new initiative, let alone accelerate or impede reform, is questionable.

The preference shown for DUI by SDSM within the ruling coalition is noteworthy. DUI and its leadership were vital adjuncts to Gruevski’s architecture of power and abuse, as revealed not only in voting behavior, but also in the wiretapped recordings released by now-PM Zaev beginning in early 2015. Some Albanians have openly voiced dismay at the apparent total embrace of DUI in the municipal elections. PM Zaev’s campaigning for a party that was previously coalition partner to VMRO-DPMNE and part of Macedonia’s problem – making maintaining a divided society an integral element in the business model for parties of power – gives pause. SDSM’s ability to attract Albanian votes was proven in December 2016, and it followed up – although very modestly – with its own candidates in Albanian-majority municipalities. SDSM’s victory in Aračinovo was the crowning achievement of that effort. SDSM officials assert that its reticence in running candidates in Albanian-majority municipalities and its support of DUI is part of a longer game, and note that the messaging and tone of DUI candidates in the local elections has changed. Those who campaigned on a more integrationist agenda tended to win, they argue. This is another step on the road to building an integrated political space, in their view. But the sense of betrayal on the part of not only Sela and his Alliance, but also a large number of Albanians, will be a complicating factor.

Dominance in a system allows the pursuit of change; it does not make it inevitable. Zaev and his SDSM now have untrammeled political leverage in Macedonia, despite their still thin parliamentary majority. Coalition partners will cleave to them tighter. The argument that the SDSM needed to accommodate the DUI was arguable earlier; it is no longer. SDSM’s credibility in pursuing “one society” with those ethnic Albanians who wished to punish DUI no less than ethnic Macedonians evidently wished to punish VMRO-DPMNE appears diminished.

It is still early days in Macedonia. But the outlook and mood are vastly improved from the air of real crisis a year ago. This is no mean feat. Prime Minister Zaev’s personal political capital is massive. He has adopted an ambitious reform agenda – primarily remedial, though that remediation is urgently needed. But the SDSM is braving the risk of widening intra-ethnic tensions among Macedonians – and that cannot be neglected.

The way forward remains vague as of now. A blueprint for a new Macedonian governance operating system – a new social contract – has yet to be articulated. The DUI was formed to capitalize upon the opening created in the Ohrid Framework Agreement – and to be gatekeeper to those spoils for Macedonia’s ethnic Albanians. Can it adapt to a political environment in which tens of thousands of Albanians sought other options? Whether Zaev’s government’s promised effort to clean house will generate casualties within the coalition – and within the SDSM’s own ranks – remains to be seen.

As we wrote after the first round, following this electoral sea change, the onus is now on Prime Minister Zaev to push forward an ambitious reform agenda which aims to not just remediate the damage done by Gruevski and other governments which preceded his, but to shore up the country institutionally to prevent such abuses in the future. The coming year will demonstrate whether the SDSM’s true intention is to change the system, or simply control it.