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North Macedonian elections set to test EU ambitions

In News, World
May 08, 2024

Predicted victory for nationalist VMRO-DPMNE may stir tensions with EU neighbours Greece and Bulgaria.

North Macedonians go to polls to vote in parliamentary and presidential elections that can present a test for the Balkan state’s European Union ambitions.

The votes on Wednesday come after Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova of the right-wing VMRO-DPMNE took a clear lead in the first round of the presidential poll held last month. Victory for the nationalist party would set the stage for tension with neighbouring Greece and Bulgaria, threatening to weigh on already slow EU accession talks.

North Macedonia’s road to EU membership started in 2005, but progress was blocked for years by Greece in a dispute over the country’s name. That was resolved in 2018 when the country added “North” to its name.

However, Hristijan Mickoski, president of VMRO-DPMNE, which heads a 22-party coalition called Your Macedonia, refuses to acknowledge the new title.

Mickoski has also promised to maintain a hard line with Bulgaria over linguistic and historical issues. That tussle, in which Bulgaria demands that Skopje recognise a tiny Bulgarian minority, has seen Sofia block EU accession talks.

If VMRO-DPMNE secures a majority in the parliamentary election, Mickoski will likely be the country’s next prime minister.

The ruling centre-left Social Democrat Party (SDSM) has pinned its hopes on unlocking talks with the EU and appeasing Bulgaria. It tried to amend the constitution to acknowledge the Bulgarian minority but lacked the numbers to push the motion through parliament.

“These elections will practically set the future of Macedonia – if we will move towards a progressive society, to the EU, or if we are headed to some past time when we had isolation and ethnic conflicts,” warned former Prime Minister and SDSM chief Dimitar Kovacevski.

Powerful populism

However, the left-leaning party, which currently leads the government and boasts the presidency, has struggled to regain the initiative since a heavy first-round loss in the presidential poll, with Mickoski’s populist agenda proving powerful.

Siljanovska-Davkova received 40 percent in the first round on April 24, unexpectedly leaving incumbent Stevo Panderovski in a distant second with a 19.9 percent vote.

Opinion polls suggest that VMRO-DPMNE is set to win the parliamentary elections by a double-digit margin.

“Victory is within reach and it is a consequence of all the suffering and humiliation this government brought,” Mickoski told a rally ahead of the vote.

He has pledged to create tens of thousands of jobs and reverse poor economic growth and soaring inflation. North Macedonia has lost about 10 percent of its population to emigration over the past two decades.

The VMRO-DPMNE president has also adopted increasingly aggressive language towards the DUI – the country’s largest Albanian party – stirring anxieties over fragile interethnic relations.

In 2001, NATO pulled North Macedonia back from the brink of civil war during an ethnic Albanian rebellion and promised faster integration into the EU and NATO.

The country of 1.83 million joined the military alliance in 2020, but impatience over its slow progress towards EU membership has been growing.

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