Really, everything was confused in these local elections. Yesterday's government overnight became the opposition. Former opposition found a common language with its former irreconcilable opponents in government. The pre-electoral brawl reached its culmination during the presentation of the VMRO-popular (VMRO-Narodna) party candidate for the mayor of Skopje, mister Trifun Kostovski. Those who attended the party meetings and congress of the group led by Ljubco Georgievski are aware of the explosive atmosphere inside meeting halls. Such euphoria could hardly be crated elsewhere. Really, it was an example of a true delirium, inasmuch as Ljubco's loyal soldiers did their utmost to prove their loyalty to the Leader. Elegant and cultivated Kostovski could not stand the hellish "atmosphere". Tears flowed from the eyes of the refined businessman listening to the echoing chants "Ma-ce-donia"! (My eyes also filled with tears. But not because of chanting; instead, some evildoer in the crowd around me unleashed a poisonous fart! One by one, we left the entrance hallway, suspiciously eyeing each other and trying to figure out which one of us carried out the dastardly deed, while the anonymous poisoner kept quiet and watched crying Trifun.)
Concepts got mixed up in these local elections, so that after that ultimately a good number of voters did not know who to vote for. Some voters from Skopje voted at the local level for SDSM, while at the city level they voted for Kostovski. They recognized Kostovski as closer to them than, for example, Risto Penov. Kostovski's appearance somehow seemed more acceptable. On his election campaign posters Kostovski looks perfect - clean shaven, manicured with flawless fingernails; it seems make up artists even applied a bit of mascara to his eyelashes; on the other hand, Penov, with his Gevgelija swarthy complexion, seemed somehow more like someone from the Balkans. How can an average SDSM voter figure out which one of the two of them is the right choice, and which one isn't? Besides, Dosta Dimovska, while Gruevski was still making up his mind whether to support Kostovski or not, prudently pointed out that the right did not have its representative among the two candidates for the mayor of Skopje. Both Penov and Kostovski were leftists!
All of that can be easily proven. It is sufficient to recall which candidate topped the list number 2 of the Social-democratic Alliance in the 2002 election for the national parliament. Or, let us consider even more recent past. While composing the new government, Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski included persons close to Trifun Kostovski, as for example Minister for Health Vlado Dimov. At one point during the campaign he even directly addressed Kostovski with these words: "I know that you are dying to join my advisors; therefore, come to my cabinet and we'll figure something out".
Finally, are Penov and his people from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) truly that much different from Kostovski? Memories of how precisely LDP insisted on the addition of the Ministry for European Integration (MEI) to the government are still fresh and we all know that Kostovski was one of the chief advocates of the same ministry. But Radmila Secerinska was decidedly opposed. SEI or MEI, MEI or SEI, she went back and forth with Trifun's supporters, claiming that abolition of her Sector for European Integration (SEI) would be a big mistake given our ambitions to join the EU. And if by some chance her view were not accepted a few months ago and Kostovski became a minister in Bucko's cabinet we would now have a totally different situation on the political scene. Still, in that case the career of the deputy prime minister Secerinska would have been compromised and the SDSM could not have allowed something like that to happen.
Just like Penov could not understand that three consecutive terms as mayor of Skopje would have been too much even for the Communist times, let alone today, and that he was much better off moving to the government and heading one of its ministries as the leader of the LDP. In that case, with Penov as a government minister, Trifun Kostovski could today be the candidate for the mayor of Skopje of the ruling "Coalition For". That way, leftists would not have to be concerned regarding which part of their traditional voters would switch to Kostovski in 2006, while Kostovski's Civic Movement would become a left of center political party. Even Branko Crvenkovski would be calmer regarding the coming presidential election four years from now. However, everything got mixed up and recent allies became opponents. Following the example of VMRO from a year ago, the left also split in two factions!
These local elections will also be remembered by irregularities, in combination with accusations of vote rigging. As we could see, the second round was not immune to these problems, despite the pressure exerted by the public to improve the dismal impression of the first round of voting. It was again proven that elections in Macedonia are a matter of life and death and that international factors have been appealing in vain for a change in attitude. People in the Republic of Macedonia are poor and yearn for money, and elections seem to them as the most obvious route to better financial situation for themselves and their relatives. Even worse, numerous different interests of our neighbors and big powers are intertwined in this small and sensitive space, so that the task of conducting clean elections with massive turnout is almost impossible, especially if authorities, as for example Police in the first round of voting, and also partly in the second round (affair "Butel"), simply fail to do what they are paid for.
In Macedonia we've always had irregular elections and we shall most likely continue to have them for a while in the future. Just recall the way in which late Boris Trajkovski was elected, when the DPSh (currently aggrieved party calling for an election boycott) in Western Macedonia stuffed ballot boxes to the top, which made it sure that half a million of votes cast by ethnic Macedonians were not enough for Tito Petkovski and the SDSM to win the election. Serious irregularities took place in 1994 as well, when Kiro Gligorov did what Trifun Kostovski failed to do in March - Gligorov was proclaimed election winner in the first round of voting although officially he won only 480f votes. Or let's consider previous local elections. In them we even had a casualty, a man shot to death in Kondovo. Do we know who killed Fatmir Jakupi? Yes, we do. Did his executioner face the justice? No. Just like we know what happened on March 13 and whether it is true as DPSh claims that Ali Ahmeti personally is responsible for problems that took place in the first round of voting and were confirmed by ODIHR. Even though DPSh politicians are not very likable given their extremist demands, their accusations seem pretty credible. Simply, the opposite, that DPSh is responsible for vote rigging, given that it is in the opposition and the BDP controls the police, sounds impossible.
In that context we should not attempt to avoid the fact pointed out by Menduh Thaci in one of his public appearances: problems with elections usually take place in voting precincts with ethnic Albanian (and Roma) majorities. Albanophiles hate it when this notorious act is thrown into their faces. For example, special EU representative Mikael Salin offered a counterargument that voting irregularities took place in Skopje as well, and not only in Western Macedonia. He was correct, of course, but where did those irregularities take place? In Saraj, Kondovo, Studenicani, Sutka, Cair, then in Butel, Dizonska Street, and in the second round of voting in the district Skopje-Sever [Skopje-North]... All of these locales have significant ethnic Albanian, and Roma population or a significant presence of Muslims from the Sandzak region in Serbia and Montenegro. In all 10 critical municipalities mentioned by OSCE observers before the elections, including Dolneni, in the Prilep region, dominant population was that of ethnic Albanians, Roma, Bosniaks, Sandzak Muslims, Torbesi... It is undeniable that these ethnic groups suffer from ethnic backwardness, that they are more rural and more dependent on farming than ethnic Macedonian population, which mostly lives in the cities and has strong presence in more profitable economic segments. Similarly, it is undeniable that there is an educational gap between the majority ethnic Macedonians and minorities, as well as that religious affiliation plays an important role (although some will naturally disagree with this assertion). It is also important that among ethnic Albanians public opinion is not as developed as among ethnic Macedonians, and is more homogeneous, i.e. mostly directed against the "external Macedonian ‘enemy'". All of this, no doubt will be overcome, but time is needed, as well as strengthening of the rule of law and state institutions, which are expected to act forcefully and impartially.
To that extent, everything seems clear. Unfortunately, our biggest enemy is precisely lack of time, and deadlines for winning the status of a candidate for membership in the EU and an invitation to join the NATO. This time the USA and the EU mercilessly criticized us because of voting irregularities, which was used by the opposition, more correctly Trifun Kostovski's election campaign headquarters, as key evidence that election results were forged. A situation was created in which it was difficult to say what was worse for the country - voting irregularities in some thirty voting precincts, or on the other hand attacks of the anti-government coalition in their press conferences. Asked by Utrinski Vesnik what was worse, elections or local reactions after the elections, EU representative Salin said: "I would say that they had a combined effect. When you have a political culture in which vote rigging is considered a part of the game, then you risk facing two possibilities: one is the existence of true vote rigging, and the other one accusations of vote rigging, regardless of whether vote rigging took place or not. As long as vote rigging is a part of your political culture you are trapped. Those who lose will always claim that they lost because of vote rigging," Salin said.
The third characteristic that marked these elections is a dirty electoral campaign. Examples of that could be found all across the Republic of Macedonia. For example, candidate for the mayor of Bogdanci, incumbent Gorgi Petrusev, allegedly recruited the military in his election campaign. On March 11 TV Sitel reported that Petrusev managed to obtain assistance of the Army of Macedonia, whose units worked on local roads on the eve of the first round of voting. Nevertheless, the worst excesses were witnessed in Skopje. Accusations thrown around in the battle between Penov and Kostovski were sufficient to keep state attorney Aleksandar Prcevski busy for at least a year. We shall use as an illustration three statements given in only one day, March 10, by three spokespersons, Andrej Zernovski, Maja Muhik, and Vlatko Gorcev.
"This whole farce is a panicky attempt to escape the clutches of the scandal ‘Kermes' and a panicky cancellation of the TV-duel is the most cowardly act in the history of electoral campaigns in Macedonia," Liberal-Democrat Zernovski said on March 10. He asserted that the true culprit behind the scandal with the sale of a land plot on Macedonia Square - used at one point by Hari Kostov to implicate Agron Buxhaku and consequently becoming a paradigm of ethnic Albanian corruption - is actually Trifun Kostovski?! LDP spokesperson said that the company that was supposed to take control of the land plot at the square is Global Stylers Group LLC, and its accredited representative was Olga Kostovska, Trifun Kostovski's daughter and wife of controversial businessman Orce Kamcev. Zernovski asked Trifun whether he knew of the company 8 September and that the whole production of the Veles company Porcelanka was moved to 8 September? At the same time he also invited company GOFI, owned by Trifun Kostovski, also mentioned in the context of that and other scandals by Zernovski, to file a suit against him so that he would be given a chance to substantiate his accusations in court, not forgetting to mention that, unlike Kostovski, he did not plan to avoid court hearings.
Immediately counterattacking, Kostovski's Headquarters, through spokesperson Maja Muhik, came up with four questions for Penov. Why did he allow the construction of an elite development in Vodno, named "Spanish village" and agree to connect it to the city water supply? Why haven't the employees of the city owned company Streets and Roads been paid for 6 months and why is the work they are supposed to do outsourced to fictitious companies close to Penov and the LPD? How many stores in the City Trade Center are owned by Penov and members of his family? And why did he allow the so-called urban mafia to construct a building in front of the ESM? These accusations in forms of questions were rehashed in different form at the first coming press conference of the VMRO-DPMNE, where their spokesperson Vlatko Gorcev said the following: "Three companies, whose founders and owners are mayor of Skopje Penov, his mother (!), sister (!?) and son in law (?!), as well as his best friend (?!?), during Penov's tenure bought three stores in the GTC, whose value is 550,000 Euros. We have this question for Penov: how many companies has he set up, how many stores do he and his close relatives own, and how many stores have been bought by companies founded by him? And most importantly: where did you get the money for all that, Mister Penov?" - VMRO's "pretty boy" (as Gorgi Marjanovik "named" him in his columns) wanted to know, explaining that his party had information that companies Magnetik, Natis and Kodi Dimce DOEL were involved. Is that perhaps the reason why Penov was so determined to keep his mayoral post instead of becoming a minister in the government?
However, in these three statements one could also seek an answer to a different question, which - at least as far as we are concerned - has crucial importance for these, as well as all the other elections, and it has to do with the record low turnout of hardly 50 percent. In principle, turnout in the local elections is always lower in comparison with the general elections (just like, in general, the opposition usually wins the local elections, due to yearning of voters for changes and progress). However, Macedonia for the first time faces the fact that a half of population does not participate in the democratic process. The civic response to appeals for mass participation in the elections this time failed, so that the turnout was de facto the same as in the 2004 presidential election. And then the opposition led by Ljubco Georgievski and the Third Way, including the Democratic Alternative (DA) boycotted the election. Now, in the first round of voting there were no calls for boycott, and the turnout was still around 50 percent. Additionally we had a record 4 to 5 percent of invalid ballots, which is also a telling indictor, given that until now we usually had between 1 and 2 percent of invalid ballots.
What is the likely cause of this newly created distaste of Macedonians for participative democracy?
First, confused political messages led to the confusion among voters. Here is a concrete example. The logo representing the ruling Coalition For Macedonia includes several colors symbolizing political parties members of the coalition. One of the colors is red, which at one point symbolized the Socialist Party of Ljubisav Ivanov Dzingo. However, on Sunday at the Macedonia Square we could see the party colors of the Socialist Party of Macedonia (SPM) intertwined with the red-black flag of the VMRO. Does that mean that now a leftist party, like Socialists, has suddenly switched to the right? And isn't it strange that Dzingo's Socialist mayor of Kratovo (who yet again won in that Macedonian "fief") be endorsed by VMRO as their representative?
Or, let's consider a few examples from Skopje. Nikola Gruevski on Sunday announced a victory in the Centar municipality. There Violeta Alarova was reelected (by the way, during her televised debate with her rival Fjodor Dobrohotov she was accused of employing relatives in the municipal administration). However, in the previous election, and until a month ago Alarova was a member of the DA. Suddenly, this journalist of the Macedonian Radio became a VMRO representative! And in her 60-ies, apparently only because Vasil Tupurkovski decided to contest these elections on his own. We shall read in Vest what happens next.
The example of General Sokol Mitrevski is similar. He ran for the mayor of Gorce Petrov as an independent, but his victory was endorsed by VMRO as their own.
But, changes of ideology in local elections do not have to be terrible. The lack of interest in the electorate, on the other hand, has serious indications. That phenomenon, in our opinion, is the result of disappointment of a large part of population by the way our politicians practice politics. The recent statement by Rufi Osmani (in the show "Svetla tacka" [Bright Spot]) regarding the ethnic Albanian political parties, equally applies to political parties representing ethnic Macedonians. Political parties in the Republic of Macedonia have lost touch with voters and have become autarchic organizations. They have been converted into elitist clubs with their own finances and militias. Therefore, they have force and money. They have taken over the public life with assistance of these instruments - one on the side of the government the others on the side of the opposition. They only communicate with wider layers of population during election campaigns. Throughout the transition we have been watching the same faces - be it on the Macedonian or on the Albanian side. Certain changes occurred with the appearance of the Democratic Union for Integration (BNP), but its voters are also showing a drop in enthusiasm. Due to all of that, nonpartisan portion of the population (and in Macedonia political party members constitute only 15 percent of the overall population) are having a hard time seeing themselves in the electoral process. They leave the showdown to the members and sympathizers of large political parties and their alliances. They watch politicians parading on TV in their expensive suits and silk handkerchiefs, acting like big patriots and say to themselves: "You can have your democracy and your brawls!" These citizens have been converted into an apathetic despondent majority, which accepts being harassed by the minority. The best indicator that indeed we are talking about a small minority can be found in the recent events in Skopje. For example, let us assume that Risto Penov won on April 10. In the first round of voting he won 60,000 votes. Therefore, theoretically, the man supported by 60,000 residents of Skopje would govern a ten times larger population.
Finally, a couple of words about the results. As is customary in local elections, all large political subjects proclaimed a victory. The Social Democrats claimed victory because they won in the largest number of local government units, as well as in several large cities, such as Ohrid, Strumica, Stip; then they claimed the victory of independent Panco Minov in Kavadarci, and in Kriva Palanka, Resen, Probistip. The VMRO-DPMNE claimed victory because of turning "All of Sko-pje" in "VMRO city", and also took the whole Pelagonija, as well as a dozen of small municipalities, as for example in Radovis and Sveti Nikole (Slobodan Danevski finally left the national parliament). The only looser, it seems is Arben Xhaferi's DPSh, which facing the likely defeat in most of municipalities with ethnic Albanian majority opted for a tactical boycott. (Although they did not call for a boycott in those municipalities where they had a chance of winning, as pointed out by the spokesperson of BNP Ermira Mehmeti: Gostivar, where Sulejman Rushiti in the end lost from Nevzat Bejta from the BNP, and in Zelino where Kenan Aliu from the PDP became the village mayor). This is a second debacle of the DPSh after the one in 2002, although this time they were closer to the BNP. The most painful loss for Xhaferi and Tachi would be the one of Tetovo, the birthplace of ethnic Albanian nationalism in Macedonia.
However, the results of voting for municipal councils are a better measure of the strength of individual parties at this moment. In that context it was interesting to watch the performance of the VMRO-Popular (VMRO-Narodna) party given that until now all VMRO splinter groups failed to make much impact on the political scene. From that point of view, the newly founded party led by Ljubco Georgievski did not do all that badly. They managed to collect 117,000 votes, and together with local coalitions with Marjan Gorcev's "farmers" and with the DA, altogether 125,000 votes. That many VMRO supporters managed to spot a difference between the supposedly "true" VMRO led by Georgievski and the "fake" VMRO led by Gruevski, which was not enough to win a mayoral race in any of the bigger municipalities or cities. It was expected that they would at least win in Ljubco's birthplace, Delcevo, but they failed even there.
On the other hand, VMRO-DPMNE won many more votes - around 330,000. At first glance that should be enough for satisfaction at Gruevski's headquarters. Especially because many of those votes came from voters in urban precincts, such as Skopje, Prilep and Bitola. However, the problem is that the SDSM won 370,000 votes! In other words, comparing the support for the main party of the ruling coalition and the biggest opposition party, the SDSM is a clear winner.
Consequently, Gruevski again faces the question of how to build a bridge towards those very important, perhaps even crucial 125,000 voters [supporting VMRO-Popular]. With them VMRO would have a significant advantage with respect to the ruling coalition. 450,000 votes were not sufficient for a success in the last year's referendum on the territorial organization of Macedonia. But, next year it would probably be sufficient for a victory in general elections. Nevertheless, analysis of the behavior of "childish Nikola" - as Buckovski would say - so far indicates that he does not have capacity to unite two wings of the VMRO, economic conservatives and Christian democrats. Similarly, it is unlikely that Georgievski could assume that role, since he seems to have finally figured out that his governing in 2001-2002 has created a lasting split with urban supporters of VMRO. Until a third credible politician appears it is likely that the right in Macedonia will be divided just like in France.
However, there is still a lot of time until September 15, 2006. Let us see the result of the second round of voting for the mayor of Skopje, the battle between Penov and Kostovski and how we shall regain our credibility damaged by the shameful and disgraceful irregularities in the first round of voting.