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Dispute Over Need for Monitors

An OSCE decision to continue monitoring democracy in Macedonia provokes controversy ahead of next month's local elections
By Veton Latifi

Besides providing a litmus test of the government's popularity, Macedonian voters are looking to the September 10 local elections as a gauge of the republic's democratic maturity.


A decision by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, to monitor the elections has therefore ruffled some feathers, particularly among the ruling coalition parties. OSCE Ambassador to Macedonia Carlo Ungaro said the organisation would deploy 200 international monitors to cover the 123 local government units.


Though none of the political parties has declared itself against the presence of international monitors, the governing coalition's response has been lukewarm.


Marjan Gjorcev, chief of electoral staff for two of the coalition parties, the VMRO-DPMNE and Democratic Alliance, said the September poll would be "fair and democratic", hinting monitoring was therefore unnecessary.


The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly halted its monitoring projects in Macedonia in April, content with the general situation and the level of democratic development in the republic.


"The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has honoured important obligations as a Council of Europe member state in an exemplary fashion," the Assembly declared in voting to close its monitoring procedure in the republic.


The pro-government media has reinforced the point publishing several articles labelling the OSCE decision a shameful slight on Macedonia's democratic credentials.


Ungaro said the decision to deploy monitors came after consultations with all the political parties, but he pointed out it was more normal for the OSCE to monitor parliamentary or presidential elections, rather than local government polls.


"Monitoring as a process should not be treated as a criticism against the state," Ungaro added.


The head of the OSCE monitoring mission, Ambassador Charles Magee from the United States, said on his arrival in Skopje, his team had been invited by the Macedonian president and had been welcomed by all political parties.


The opposition, however, welcomed the news foreign observers are to monitor the elections.


Branko Crvenkovski, leader of the Social Democratic League of Macedonia, LSDM, praised the OSCE announcement saying, "With an abnormal government there can be no normal elections."


The opposition coalition, For Macedonia-Together, which includes the LSDM, has called the September 10 poll a referendum on the republic's future and argues an opposition win would constitute a demand for early parliamentary elections. With such hype behind the poll, the opposition's support for international scrutiny becomes all the more understandable.


The OSCE monitored the 1996 local elections as well as Macedonia's general and presidential polls. After the 1999 presidential elections the OSCE were generally upbeat about the conduct of the poll, but still voiced some concerns.


"While these elections built on many of the positive aspects of the 1998 elections, the process in some parts of the country was marred with violations during the second round of voting and the subsequent reruns in 230 precincts," the OSCE final report states.


During the second round re-runs OSCE monitors at one polling station in Labunista, for example, witnessed blatant ballot stuffing after VMRO-DPMNE activists entered the polling station. In Studenicani observers witnessed the VMRO-DPMNE representatives filling out multiple ballot papers. Democratic Party of Albanians representatives later intimidated the observers into leaving the polling station.


This time around the OSCE monitors are expected to pay particular attention to local media activity. Both print and electronic media have in the past demonstrated clear political bias during election campaigns. After the presidential elections, the OSCE final report, although on the whole encouraged by the nature of the media coverage, did point to some failings.


The state broadcaster MTV 1 showed a distinct tendency to present the VMRO candidate in a more positive light than any other candidates, the report said, pointing out each new government in Macedonia had a habit of making new appointments within the state media, even at the level of editors and journalists.


The pro-opposition Sitel TV channel, meanwhile, was criticised by the OSCE for displaying a clear anti-government bias in its news broadcasts and special Profile election programme.


One of the most serious campaign violations cited by the OSCE concerned the largely government funded Flaka newspaper. On the day before campaign embargo came into effect a photo of the DPA candidate covered 80 per cent of Flaka's front page. The edition also carried an exclusive interview with the candidate and an additional 15 photos.


Although these local elections are unlikely to have a great impact on the immediate political situation in Macedonia, the coming year is expected to bring decentralisation and an increased role for local government in the republic.


Gjorcev described the elections as "D Day for Macedonia's political situation" adding that after the poll, "Some processes will be set in train through which the Macedonian state will be divided and federalised."


In this context the participation of monitors in the local elections to ensure an accurate and fair result is imperative. Voting day tends to be a tense affair in Macedonia and despite protests to the contrary, irregularities have remained a feature of all the republic's post-independence polls.


The presence of international monitors should legitimise the September results, something all political parties should welcome. After all if the ruling coalition is victorious on September 10, the presence of international monitors would quash the inevitable cries of "foul" from the opposition.


Veton Latifi is an analyst and journalist in Macedonia.


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