North Macedonia Parliamentary and Presidential Election: Key Issues and Expected Results

On May 8 2024, two elections will take place in the Republic of North Macedonia: the second round of the presidential election, and the parliamentary election.

Political and electoral system

In North Macedonia, the political structure is characterized by a parliamentary system, where the President has a largely ceremonial role, while the real executive power is held by the Prime Minister, who is himself elected by the members of the Parliament.

Domestically, the President can propose laws, veto parliamentary decisions, and is involved in the appointment of officials, though most decisions are subject to parliamentary approval. The parliament, known as the Sobranie, holds the legislative power, can give or take back its confidence to the Prime Minister, and impeach the President under certain conditions.

Internationally, the President represents North Macedonia in state matters, including the signing of international agreements and receiving foreign dignitaries. The President’s role in foreign policy is largely consultative, while the actual policy-making is carried out by the government.

North Macedonia’s presidential electoral framework operates on a majority voting system: to win in the first round, candidates must secure more than 50% of the vote. If no candidate achieves this majority, a second round is held between the top two candidates. The President is elected for a five-year term and can serve a maximum of two consecutive terms. Presidential candidates must gather a certain number of signatures from eligible voters to qualify for the election.

North Macedonia’s parliamentary electoral system operates under a proportional representation model, dividing the country into six districts, each electing 20 MPs. Parties present lists of candidates, and seats are allocated based on the proportion of votes each party receives, using the D’Hondt method. This system encourages multi-party representation while ensuring that seats reflect voter preferences. Parliamentary elections typically occur every four years, and are under a caretaker government, established before the election and composed of members both from the ruling and opposition parties.

Political landscape in North Macedonia

Since its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, North Macedonia’s political landscape features a spectrum of ideologies, from conservative to liberal, with a significant presence of right-wing and nationalist movements.

Key political entities include the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), which generally represents the center-right, and the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), which embodies center-left ideals. Both parties have historically dominated North Macedonian politics, alternating in power. However, smaller parties, including ethnic Albanian parties such as the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), have also played influential roles, often serving as kingmakers in coalition governments.

One distinctive aspect of North Macedonian politics is the ethnic component, where ethnic Macedonian and Albanian parties often vie for influence. Although North Macedonia does not work on a formal confessionalist system (like Lebanon or Bosnia), there are mechanisms in place to ensure ethnic communities have a voice in politics. For instance, the Ohrid Framework Agreement, signed in 2001, sought to improve the rights of ethnic Albanians and ensure proportional representation in public institutions, police forces, and other key areas. The coalition-based parliamentary system also ensures that parties representing ethnic Albanians, who make up about a quarter of the population, will always have leverage to maintain their influence.

Results of the first turn of the presidential election

On April 24, in the first round of North Macedonia’s presidential election, Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, representing the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, led with approximately 40% of the vote. The incumbent President, Stevo Pendarovski of the Social Democrats, garnered around 20% of the vote.

Both candidates will face off in the second round of the presidential election, on May 8.

Key issues of the election

One of the major topics is North Macedonia’s aspiration for EU membership, which has been stalled due to a dispute with Bulgaria. In fact, for a country to join the European Union, it needs unanimous approval of all existing member states; Bulgaria has blocked the start of EU talks with North Macedonia, primarily over issues related to historical and ethnic disputes, demanding that North Macedonia recognize its Bulgarian minority in its constitution.

In 2022, North Macedonia’s parliament approved a French-brokered deal, which included a commitment to amend the constitution to recognize the Bulgarian minority. However, constitutional reforms requires a two-thirds majority in the Sobranie, which is difficult to reach due to the country’s political divisions. This lack of constitutional integration has led to Sofia’s dissatisfaction and has become a contentious topic in North Macedonia’s elections.

Both major presidential candidates expressed different approaches to addressing the Bulgarian minority issue. While Pendarovski favors constitutional amendments to acknowledge the Bulgarian minority, Siljanovska-Davkova insists that such changes should follow EU accession.

Economic issues and anti-corruption efforts are also crucial, as are concerns about the country’s ethnic relations with its Albanian minority.

The presence of international observers, led by the OSCE, underlines the elections’ significance. The focus on transparency and democratic processes aligns with the broader concerns of the electorate, particularly amid recent criticisms of the ruling party for concessions made in the EU accession process.

Main competitors

The main competitors in both the presidential and parliamentary elections primarily gravitate around the country’s two dominant political factions: the SDSM and the VMRO-DPMNE, who respectively presented Pendarovski and Siljanovska-Davkova as presidential candidates.

The VMRO-DPMNE gathered a comfortable advance in the first turn of the presidential election. Their program emphasizes national sovereignty – criticizing SDSM’s concession to Bulgaria -, a cautious approach to European integration, as well as judicial reforms and anti-corruption measures within the country.

The SDSM won the last presidential election, and their coalition arrived first in the 2020 parliamentary election, with 46 seat out of 120. The party focuses on European integration, advocating for North Macedonia’s entry into the EU, while advancing economic reform, and addressing social issues and corruption.

Although the DUI has little chances to win a majority of seats in the parliament, it remains a significant player, particularly in coalition-building. The party advocates for better representation of ethnic Albanians’ interests, and traditionally allies with the SDSM.

Other candidates

In North Macedonia, it is common for the main parties to form “pre-election” coalitions to ensure they secure enough seats in the parliament not to be too dependent of “post-election” coalition.

This is mainly due to the number of parties and the complexity of opinions expressed in the country. For instance, the VMRO-DPMNE-led coalition includes 21 different parties, while the SDSM-led totalizes 14.

As for the 2020 election, the DUI will lead a center-left coalition composed of 4 parties, and will compete for Albanians’ votes with the Alliance for the Albanians-led coalition, regrouping 5 parties in total.

New small parties are often created in North Macedonia, and while this can be the sign of a healthy democracy, they remain minor candidates in the local political system, orbiting around bigger parties, and even raising some concerns about the country’s clientelism culture.

However, Citizen Option for Macedonia (GROM) achieved to lead a coalition exclusively formed by smaller parties, potentially offering a new alternative in the legislative election, although their chances to win a majority of seats remain extremely small.

Potential results of the May 8 elections

The 2020 legislative election saw close results between the coalitions led by the SDSM and the VMRO-DPMNE, followed by the DUI. Such a scenario is more than probable to happen again, and if it was the case, the most important factor to determine North Macedonia’s future path will be the post-election coalitions, mostly created to vote on specific subjects.

If the parliament faces such an equal distribution of its seats between the SDSM and the VMRO-DPMNE, the DUI would play a decisive role in said post-election coalition. The VMRO-DPMNE has already voiced its refusal of a coalition with the DUI, which historically allies with the SDSM. However, the DUI has a wish to reform the presidential election from a popular vote to a parliamentary decision in order to better represent Albanians interests, an ambition that might not be met with acceptance from the SDSM.

The GROM-led coalition could bring a new perspective in North Macedonia’s political landscape, allowing smaller parties to come together and have a voice away from the influence of the country’s main parties. However, it is highly unlikely that this coalition becomes a real political power on May 8.

Siljanovska-Davkova was well-ahead in the first turn of the presidential race, and is expected to win the second round.

Overall, it is more than likely that the country remains in the actual status quo on decisive matters, with the SDSM lacking the two-third majority to modify the Constitution, recognize the country’s Bulgarian minority and advance with the EU integration process, while it seems unrealistic for both the DUI to obtain a parliamentary-elected President and for the GROM to lead a third way away from the SDSM and the VMRO-DPMNE.

The main issue with the two May 8 elections in North Macedonia remains the voter turnout, which only exceeded 49% for the presidential election’s first turn. Even the parliamentary elections, the heart of North Macedonia’s political system, suffer from a low turnout, with only 52% of the registered voters going to the polls during the last legislative election in July 2020.

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