SKOPJE — Following his party’s poor performance in the second round of mayoral elections, North Macedonia’s prime minister, Zoran Zaev, was quick to announce his resignation on October 31.
Zaev, an economist and private businessman, took responsibility for the poor showing of his ruling Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) and also resigned as the president of the center-left party.
His resignation did not come as a surprise.
“October 31 is all-in for me,” Zaev said before the local elections, saying that if his party lost, he would step down. While a new prime minister will come from the SDSM, the largest party in the ruling coalition, the opposition has already called for snap parliamentary elections.
Here are five reasons why North Macedonia’s voters turned against Zaevand his party.
1. Unfulfilled Promises Of Reform
The 47-year-old Zaev became prime minister and leader of the ruling coalition in May 2017. He was propelled into power from the opposition after his prominent role in exposing the illegal wiretapping of up to 20,000 Macedonian officials and citizens by the government of the nationalist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), who had been in power since 2006. After being sentenced to prison on corruption charges, the leader of the party, Nikola Gruevski, fled to Hungary.
Former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski leaves court after his extradition trial in Budapest on June 27, 2019.
Coming into office, Zaev promised honest and responsible governance, a strong fight against crime, and institutional reform so the country could progress toward NATO and European Union membership. His failure to fulfill those promises was one of the main reasons for his electoral defeat, says Marko Trosanovski, president of the Skopje-based Institute for Democracy.
“They were warned several times, both in previous election cycles and by experts, to return to the reform agenda, but they left many unaddressed problems: Judicial reform and the public administration remained [politically] partisan,” Trosanovski said.
2. Corruption Scandals
After the wiretapping scandal’s seismic impact on North Macedonia’s politics, Zaev promised to deliver justice. But the public became disillusioned after the so-called “Racket” affair in 2019, in which people close to Zaev allegedly participated with Katica Janeva, the special prosecutor in charge of investigating organized crime and corruption, in extorting money from businessman Jordan Kamchev. (In June 2020, Janeva was sentenced to seven years in prison for abuse of office.)
Other reforms were overshadowed by a public perception that the government was being soft on crime and corruption, said political analyst Xhelal Neziri.
In June 2020, Katica Janeva (center) was sentenced to seven years in prison for abuse of office.
“There is a perception that the SDSM had only replaced VMRO-DPMNE and that it was continuing the same practice of influencing the judiciary, controlling the prosecution, with impunity for politicians and people associated with the government,” Neziri said.
During Zaev’s tenure, several scandals rocked the government. One of Zaev’s top advisers, Dragi Raskovski, was placed under house arrest for alleged impropriety regarding the purchase of government software, even though Zaev regularly proclaimed Raskovski’s innocence.
When former Prime Minister Gruevski, along with former representatives of the security services, fled the country, there were no repercussions and no one from Zaev’s administration accepted responsibility for their escape.
Supporters of the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party celebrate victory at the party’s headquarters in Skopje late on October 31.
The public perceived a similar lack of accountability after the government’s reaction to a fire in September in Tetovo at a makeshift COVID-19 hospital where 14 people died. The health minister, Venko Filipce, offered his resignation, but Zaev did not accept it because he said the investigation showed the minister was not at fault.
3. The Bulgaria Factor
Zaev’s government successfully negotiated and signed the Prespa Agreement with Greece in 2018, renaming Macedonia as the Republic of North Macedonia. That ended a 27-year-old dispute with Athens and cleared Skopje’s path to NATO accession. But progress toward the European Union has still been blocked by objections from neighboring Bulgaria. Sofia has accused North Macedonia of discriminating against the country’s ethnic Bulgarians, allegations which Skopje denies.
Zaev made statements that were seen as unacceptable to many Macedonians, such as saying that he no longer viewed Bulgaria as a “fascist occupier” during World War II.
“The public was not prepared for another national humiliation and for [the government’s] very insensitive attitude that didn’t take into account [the public’s] collective memory and feelings,” Trosanovski said.
According to Trosanovski, North Macedonia will be blocked for a long time by Bulgaria in its EU accession bid regardless of whether the current government remains in power.
“The government will be much more careful in the negotiations and less willing to compromise. They didn’t have much room for maneuver anyway and the European Union itself is preoccupied with other problems and internal dysfunction,” Trosanovski said.
4. Failing In The Regions
One of the main reasons for the SDSM’s losses in the recent local elections, according to Neziri, is due to the poor management of the municipalities by party officials and mayors. After the SDSM formed the government in the spring of 2017, the party won 57 mayoral seats from a total of 80 municipalities in local elections in the fall of that year.
In the recent local election campaign, the opposition criticized SDSM mayors for their performance on improving local infrastructure — for example, traffic management, water supplies, and sewage treatment.
Former Skopje Mayor Petre Silegov
The opposition challenger in the capital, Skopje, who went on to win the poll, said that the former Mayor Petre Silegov had accomplished only 5 percent of his 2017 electoral promises in the city. Now, after the latest polls, the SDSM has only 16 mayors, with the VMRO-DPMNE holding 42 mayoral seats.
5. Internal Party Strife
Since coming to power, the SDSM has been hampered by internal rifts and high-profile figures leaving the party. In 2013, Zaev became leader of the party in tandem with Radmila Sekerinska, who was given the new role of vice president. But this year, current Defense Minister Sekerinska decided to step down from her party role after reportedly having a dispute with Zaev, the substance of which is not publicly known.
Damjan Manchevski, a long-standing member of the SDSM, also left the government. And former Finance Minister Dragan Tevdovski, who was considered to be the architect of the party’s economic program, was dismissed from the government.
“Intra-party divisions and Zaev’s failure to balance [various] interests within the party have contributed to this spectacular drop in support,” Neziri said.
One of the biggest electoral blows for the SDSM was delivered by the former mayor of Kumanovo, Maksim Dimitrievski, who was also an old opposition ally of Zaev. In the recent local elections, Dimitrievski decided not to run on the party’s ticket and defeated the SDSM candidate in Kumanovo, one of the biggest cities in North Macedonia and traditionally an SDSM stronghold.