Macedonians went to the polls on October 15 in all 81 of the country’s municipalities. Final results show that in the first round of local elections, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s Social Democrats (SDSM) defeated Nikola Gruevski’s nationalist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party (VMRO-DPMNE). Out of 81 municipalities, 13 were won by the VMRO-DPMNE, and 37 were won by the SDSM. The SDSM also has a lead in 13 other municipalities, but they and the other mayoralities that were not won outright will be decided in the second round of the vote, which is set to take place on October 29.
The Social Democrats formed a national government in May 2017 with ethnic-Albanian parties following political turmoil after parliamentary elections in December 2016. That election saw the VMRO-DPMNE, which was ruling at the time, come in first. After six months of political strife, the party acknowledged defeat, so the task of forming a government went to the Social Democrats, who need the help of ethnic-Albanian parties to form a majority coalition. This polarized the country, as ethnic tensions still simmer from the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Nationalist protests supported by the Macedonian president, a member of VMRO-DPMNE, broke out against the Social Democrats. After the Sobraine, Macedonia’s unicameral parliament, elected an ethnic-Albanian as speaker, VMRO-DPMNE supporters stormed the building and attacked lawmakers.
The local elections tested the young Social Democratic government, whose victory bolsters its pro-EU, pro-NATO, and anti-corruption message. Zaev, in a jab at the illiberal VMRO-DPMNE, said, “This is how Macedonia looks when the voting is free, peaceful, and without pressures.” Nikola Gruevski, the former-prime minister and head of VMRO-DMPNE, responded that “the election passed in an undemocratic atmosphere and in unfair conditions.” However, the loss for VMRO-DPMNE puts additional pressure on Gruevski to resign as party leader after becoming ensnared in a wiretapping scandal toward the end of his rule in 2016. In ethnically Albanian regions of Macedonia, the junior governing party, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), successfully fought-off several smaller ethnic-Albanian parties trying to end the DUI’s monopoly on power in the Albanian community.
Once the mayoralties are confirmed after the October 29 vote, Zaev will be free to work towards normalizing relations with Greece—with which it has a naming dispute—and further develop its friendship with Bulgaria. This will ease accession talks between Macedonia and the European Union and between Macedonia and NATO, which have stalled due to Bulgarian and Greek vetoes in recent years.