Macedonia – Ethnic Condominium, Constrained Competition and the Concentration of Power

Macedonia has faced numerous challenges since it declared independence on September 8, 1991. It was the least developed and smallest of the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’s (FRY) six republics, with a current population of only about 2.1 million. Macedonia is ethnically divided. Its population consists of about 65% Macedonians, 25% Albanians, and smaller numbers of Serbs, Roma, Turks and Bulgarians. Prior to its inclusion on Yugoslavia, the region has been subject to rivalry between neighboring powers, and has been occupied by the Ottoman Turks, Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia. Its postcommunist political development has been mixed. It was the only former FRY republic to secede peacefully and has held a series of competitive legislative and presidential elections. But democratic accountability is limited, and inter-ethnic relations have been challenging. In 2001 conflict broke out between the Macedonian majority and the Albanian ethnic minority, in part due to spill over from fighting in neighboring Kosovo. While a negotiated settlement was reached in the 2001 Ohrid Framework Agreement, tension remains high between the majority and minority communities.

Macedonia is a semi-presidential system, in which the preponderance of authority is vested in the prime minister and cabinet. The country’s president is elected to a five year term and is limited to two terms. The first individual to hold the post, Kiro Gligorov, was selected by the National Assembly in 1991, then elected in 1994 and remained in office until 1999. Since the first popular election for the president in 1994, the electoral system (two round run-off) has remained stable. Parliamentary elections have been held under three different systems since independence. Initially a two ballot runoff majority identical to the presidential system was employed. In 1998 a mixed system was introduced in which two ballot runoff was retained for 85 seats in the national assembly and 35 MPs were chosen according two closed list PR in a single national district. Following the Ohrid Framework Agreement that ended the conflict in 2001, the current system of closed list proportional representation in six electoral districts was introduced.

The Macedonian political system can fairly be characterized as an “ethnic condominium.” Over the course of the past twenty years or so party competition has been organized around four major parties, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) represent ethnic Macedonian constituents. Since 2002 the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA), and the Democratic Union for Integration DUI have shared the bulk of the ethnic Albanian vote. In addition to these major players, numerous small parties have participated in both presidential and legislative elections, either in coalitions or independently. Very little inter-ethnic voting occurs, and no party appealing to an inter-ethnic constituency has gained power since independence. Intra-ethnic party competition, on the other hand, has been quite intense.

Within this highly segregated construction, comity has been maintained among ethnic elites through an informal agreement that every cabinet will include representatives of the Albanian minority. This is a particularly important consideration in Macedonia, where clientelism is rife and the state serves as a critical source of employment, investment and social benefits. The allocation of ministries to Albanian politicians ensures that they can distribute resources to their supporters. In principle either of the majority ethnicity party could form a coalition with either of the minority parties, providing a degree of political flexibility. In practice, the most successful party on the Macedonian side enters into an agreement with the strongest of the Albanian contenders. The single case in which this did not occur (2006 when VMRO-DPME formed an alliance with the DPA despite the fact that the Democratic Union of Albanians was the more successful in elections) was met with protests and demonstrations on the Albanian side. In the succeeding election Macedonian party leaders reverted to form, allying with the winning Albanian party.

The majoritarian nature of presidential voting provides at least the opportunity for cross ethnic voting and coalition building, given the fact that neither of the major Macedonian parties has been able to mobilize a majority of voters for a first round win. However, the depth of the inter-ethnic cleavage in the country seems to overpower this logic. More recently, it appears that the presidential contest can be a source of considerable tension rather than providing an incentive to cooperate across ethnic lines. In the run-up to the April 2014 election VMRO-DPME’s Albanian junior coalition partner, the DUI, insisted that a common “consensus candidate” be nominated for the position. When VMRO balked at the idea and nominated sitting President Gjorge Ivanov to run for a second term the DUI introduced a motion of dissolution, forcing early legislative elections, also held in April 2014.

Most of Macedonia’s postcommunist history has been characterized by inter-elite completion within compartmentalized ethnic communities, as described above. In recent years, however, democratic space has narrowed and completion has declined in both the majority and minority communities as the VMRO-DPME and DUI respectively have consolidated dominant positions among their voters. While elections are formally free, the ruling parties successfully made use of public resources and an increasingly tight hold on both public and private media to limit competition. Civil Society organizations aligned with the opposition have faced harassment and official pressure and complaints of partisan judicial prosecutions are on the rise. VMRO-DPMNE has now won parliamentary elections in 2006, 2008, 2011 and 2014, local elections in 2013, and Presidential elections in 2014. In the 2014 parliamentary elections, VMRO-DPMNE came close to winning an outright majority in the National Assembly for the first time in history, taking 61 of the 123 seats. Its Albanian minority coalition partner, the DUI has similarly consolidated its position, out polling the DPA in each legislative contest and increasing its lead from 12.2% to 7.5% in 2006, to 13.7% to 5.9%. Perhaps more significantly, the dominant party partners have gained near complete control over mayors offices. Most recently, in 2013 local elections, VMRO-DPME won 56 mayors races, DUI 14, SDSM 4 and DPA 2. These positions are critical in the Macedonian context because they serve as centers for patronage and allow the national parties to extend their control over local electorates.

This illiberal turn in Macedonia has influenced the balance of power among political institutions. While constitutional relationships remain largely unchanged on the formal level, practically, power has been concentrated in the hands of VMRO-DPME party leader and Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. In the legislature-government relationship, the role of the legislature progressively diminished in favor the prime minister’s office and the cabinet. Within the executive, Prime Minister Gruevski dominates the cabinet, and his public presence overwhelms the role of President Ivanov. While President Ivanov retains official functions such as presiding over the Security Council and nominating some top judicial positions on the Constitutional Court and Judicial Council, it is difficult to imagine that he would take any action independent of the Prime Minister. Like the legislature, the Macedonian presidency has been reduced to its ceremonial and symbolic functions while substantive power flows into the hands of Nikola Gruevski in his roles as prime minister and party leader.

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