By Trajche Panov (Trinity College Dublin)

The recent double elections in Macedonia unfolded as a resounding victory for the right-wing VMRO DPMNE party and a significant setback for the ruling Social Democrats (SDSM). In a landslide win, VMRO DPMNE, characterized by its right-wing nationalist stance, secured triumphs in both parliamentary and presidential elections. This electoral outcome marks a historic moment, with Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova becoming North Macedonia’s first female head of state, garnering a high 65% of the votes in the presidential run-off.
The preliminary results released by the State Election Commission indicate VMRO DPMNE and its coalition partners clinching 58 seats out of the 120-member Parliament. In contrast, the ruling SDSM coalition suffered its worst electoral performance in its three-decade history, securing only 18 seats, positioning it as the third political force in Parliament. Ahead of SDSM, the Democratic Union of Integration (DUI) and its coalition partners emerged with 19 seats, consolidating their influence as a major party representing ethnic Albanians. Additionally, the opposition bloc comprising ethnic Albanian parties, VLEN (Worth), claimed 13 seats. Furthermore, two other political entities, namely the anti-systemic far-left populist party, the Left (Levica), and a newly formed SDSM splinter party, ZNAM – For Our Macedonia (KNOW), each secured 6 seats.
The electorate’s participation in the May 8th polls marked an important moment in Macedonia’s political landscape, shaping the 11th cohort of MPs since the country’s independence and choosing the 6th President at the 7th Presidential elections. Against the backdrop of mounting pressure from Bulgaria regarding constitutional changes, crucial for advancing Macedonia’s EU accession talks, the electoral campaign gained heightened significance. While numerous issues vied for attention, including economic concerns and social welfare and corruption, the focus remained on fulfilling EU prerequisites, particularly regarding constitutional reforms.

The Deterministic Role of the First Round of the Presidential Elections
The electoral campaign’s trajectory was heavily influenced by the outcome of the first round of presidential elections on April 24th. With a record number of seven contenders, the initial round set the tone for subsequent campaigning. Notably, Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, representing the VMRO DPMNE-led coalition, secured a commanding lead with 40.2% of the votes, more than double that of her nearest rival, the incumbent president Stevo Pendarovski, backed by the center-left coalition led by SDSM. The subsequent presidential run-off mirrored the 2019 elections, with Siljanovska-Davkova facing Pendarovski once again who was then elected president with 53% electoral support. However, her decisive victory in the first round left little doubt about the final outcome, aside from the uncertainty surrounding achieving the mandatory 40% turnout in the second round.
To surpass the turnout threshold, major political parties and blocs, including those representing ethnic Albanians, need to refrain from boycotting the run-off, urging their supporters to cast their votes. The attainment of the 40% threshold in the second round of the Presidential elections occurred despite a low turnout among ethnic Albanian voters, orchestrated by instructions from the DUI. The aim was to prevent the VMRO DPMNE candidate from winning the presidency, which could have led to an institutional crisis and necessitated a new presidential election. In such a scenario, the interim president would have been the new president of the Parliament, elected following the constitution of the new Assembly. The DUI campaigned for constitutional changes to elect the President of the Republic in Parliament via qualified majority voting, aiming to ensure ethnic Albanians’ influence in the selection process.
Following the clear weakness of the SDSM in the first round and the anticipated strength of VMRO DPMNE in the new government, VMRO DPMNE’s party president, Hristijan Mickovski, intensified his campaign, promising a new VMRO DPMNE-led government without the DUI. An anti-DUI sentiment, portraying the party as highly corrupt, helped VMRO DPMNE garner support among ethnic Macedonian voters. Despite the DUI’s orchestrated boycott, achieving the 40% threshold significantly bolstered VMRO DPMNE’s leverage in forming a government without the DUI. VMRO DPMNE and the DUI were consistently in governmental coalitions between 2008 and 2017, a period marked by high-level corruption, state capture, and democratic institutions’ erosion.

The Electoral Campaign
The political campaign lacked substantive discussions on the country’s direction, focusing mainly on political disqualifications, accusations of corruption, and nationalistic rhetoric regarding constitutional changes conditioned by Bulgarian veto, hindering EU accession negotiations. The ruling Social Democrats’ campaign was further hampered by poor results in the first round of the Presidential Elections. Their lack of energy and enthusiasm, especially evident in the initial campaign stages, became more pronounced after the first round. Despite offering strong declarative EU messages, the Social Democrats failed to provide convincing arguments that their policies would align with their pro-EU sentiment. Corruption emerged as a significant issue, highlighted by EC and US, including other international organizations, with the opposition accusing the SDSM of being entirely subservient to the DUI, contributing to a “pandemic of corruption.” Additionally, SDSM faced a major obstacle with the emergence of ZNAM (Know), a splinter party led by Maksim Dimitrievski, former high-ranking SDSM official and mayor of Kumanovo, who departed from the party in 2021 to found the Movement, later transforming it into the ZNAM party. ZNAM secured nearly 10% of the votes in the first round of the Presidential elections when their leader Dimitrievski was the candidate and on the parliamentary elections, winning six seats. Most of these votes, along with prominent ZNAM members and new MPs, were SDSM defectors disillusioned by the party’s performance in government.
The electoral campaign within the ethnic Albanian political sphere was highly charged, with a primary focus on the determined efforts of the newly established political block, VLEN (Worth), to unseat the DUI as the predominant political force among ethnic Albanian voters. The competition unfolded between two distinct coalitions: the “European Front” and VLEN (“Worth”), vying to represent Macedonia’s largest minority group, constituting approximately a quarter of the total population of 1.84 million. The “European Front,” comprising nine parties, is predominantly led by the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), which emerged from individuals involved in the 2001 ethnic conflict and has been part of ruling coalitions for the majority of the period from 2002 onwards, with brief opposition stints between 2006 and 2008.
Despite the personal endorsement of Arben Taravari, VLEN’s presidential candidate in the first round, by Albin Kurti, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, in an effort to bolster opposition parties and surpass DUI’s electoral support, the DUI once again emerged victorious, securing the highest number of ethnic Albanian votes and parliamentary seats. This outcome primarily stems from DUI’s entrenched clientelist practices developed over the past two decades in power, coupled with its narrative emphasizing the protection of rights and freedoms for ethnic Albanians, underscored by the election of Talat Xhaferi as the first ethnic Albanian technical prime minister.

What after? – The fear of resurgence of Gruevism is more than justified
The apprehension regarding the return of Gruevism is undeniably legitimate. Despite spending seven years in opposition, VMRO DPMNE made minimal efforts towards internal reform or reckoning with the political legacy of Nikola Gruevski’s regime. Rather than disavowing Gruevski’s political heritage, VMRO DPMNE has embraced figures deeply associated with state capture, such as former Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska, portraying them as victims of injustice in their electoral campaigns. The individuals convicted for the storming of the Parliament on April 27th, 2017, are depicted as victims, with Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova pledging to pardon them when elected president. In his victory speech, Hristijan Mickovski hinted at retribution by threatening to imprison former government officials. The prospect of a new government led by VMRO DPMNE raises concerns about the persistence of Gruevism, albeit without Gruevski himself at the helm. Gruevski and his inner circle, including Mickovski and many current VMRO DPMNE leaders, amassed significant wealth during their tenure. Daily manufacturing of inter-ethnic tensions fostered insecurity and fear among citizens. VMRO DPMNE’s decisive electoral victory and near-majority in Parliament afford them the freedom to choose coalition partners. The principle of a “winner-winner” coalition between Macedonian and Albanian blocs has been disregarded on several occasions, with VMRO DPMNE opting for the Democratic Party of Albanians in 2006 instead of DUI and DUI aligning with SDSM in 2017 instead of VMRO DPMNE. Despite having fewer seats, VMRO DPMNE intends to invite VLEN to join the government, possibly extending an invitation to ZNAM as well. However, this move could reignite inter-ethnic tensions as both VMRO DPMNE and DUI may exploit nationalist narratives for political gain.
The prospect of Macedonia’s integration into the European Union (EU) is at stake. It faces uncertainty, primarily due to doubts surrounding VMRO DPMNE’s willingness to enact constitutional amendments accommodating Bulgarians as an ethnic minority and thereby removing hurdles to advancing accession negotiations. Despite commanding a strong presence in parliament, VMRO DPMNE’s political narrative heavily relies on opposition to these changes, presenting them as “Bulgarian dictate”, thus constraining their ability to maneuver. In the past, similar parliamentary majorities have seen VMRO DPMNE circumvent EU conditions, leveraging EU accession deadlock to capture the state, perpetuate corruption, and suppress media freedoms and human rights, especially for marginalized groups. The absence of substantial pressure from other political and social quarters, compounded by SDSM’s feeble parliamentary presence and the anti-EU and anti-NATO stance of party Left (Levica) as well as ZNAM which proposes conditional constitutional changes being effective upon EU accession, further complicates the landscape. The forthcoming priorities of a VMRO DPMNE-led government regarding EU integration will be closely scrutinized.

Quo vadis, SDSM!
Meanwhile, SDSM confronts a myriad of challenges in maintaining its status as the principal alternative to VMRO DPMNE and upholding its position as a leading center-left party. The emergence of ZNAM as a splinter party, coupled with Levica’s notable increase in parliamentary seats, from two in the previous to six in the new Parliament, presents additional obstacles. SDSM’s historically lowest electoral support serves as a stark wake-up call, signaling missed opportunities to advance a more robust progressive agenda, uphold the rule of law, combat corruption, and dismantle the state capture apparatus established during Nikola Gruevski. The leader of the SDSM and prime minister Dimitar Kovachevski in his conceding speech on the election night, did not offer his resignation, but instead announced new intra-party elections, suggesting a recognition of the need for internal reforms. SDSM’s task now entails overhauling its internal structures to mitigate the tarnished reputation stemming from its disappointing governance tenure, purging corrupt and inept elements, and, most importantly, regaining public trust. The seven years of SDSM in office including the time of Zoran Zaev reinforced the model of unaccountable rulership compromising the rule of law and justice and offering economic gains in return for political support that undoubtedly harmed the reputation of SDSM and the betrayed the hopes for a different type of governance. Despite SDSM’s vocal support for the EU and efforts to foster inter-ethnic harmony and democratic freedoms, the party has faltered in its endeavors to combat corruption and uphold the rule of law. This shortfall undermines the aspirations ignited by the 2015 Colorful Revolution for a just, inclusive, progressive and democratic society. Rebuilding public trust represents a formidable challenge that SDSM must confront head-on in the foreseeable future.
Photo source: