Macedonia: Albanian Party Dominates by Default

Moderate party has weak local support among Albanians, but survives because it’s still perceived as better than the alternative.

Macedonia: Albanian Party Dominates by Default

Moderate party has weak local support among Albanians, but survives because it’s still perceived as better than the alternative.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

Moves to legalise a controversial Albanian-language university in Macedonia are likely to boost the standing of the moderate Albanian party, the Democratic Party for Integration, DUI, on which the government heavily relies as a coalition partner.

The DUI needs all the help it can get, since its political base is weak at grassroots level. The only saving grace is that its rival in Albanian constituency areas, the more radical Democratic of Albanians, DPA, is even less popular.

In a debate starting on January 16, the Macedonian parliament is set to pass a law that gives legal status to an Albanian university in Tetovo, in an area which saw several months of violent ethnic conflict in 2001. The university was established illegally 10 years ago and became a symbol of the Albanians’ struggle for higher education in their own language. Attempts to close it down have only bolstered support for it.

Under the proposed law, the university will not only become legal but will receive state funding. The move will defuse a long-running source of tension between the country’s two main ethnic groups.

If passed, the law will be viewed as a triumph for the DUI, the party formed by former Albanian rebels who gave up their guns after the conflict. No other Albanian party can claim success in driving such a reform through.

Since it was founded two years ago, the DUI has been seen as the main guarantor of the Ohrid peace deal that ended the conflict. The credentials it has won for its moderate views have positioned it well to tackle thorny issues like the university in Tetovo.

The DUI is the minor partner in a coalition led by the Socialist Democratic Alliance of Macedonia, SDSM, which came to power in September 2002. The Albanian party won 17 seats in parliament, and has four government ministers and a deputy prime minister.

The coalition ousted a cabinet run by nationalists from either side of the divide – the Macedonian VMRO and, on the Albanian side, the DPA. While those parties were united in wanting to see the small republic split in two along ethnic lines, the SDSM-DUI partnership pledged to maintain a multi-ethnic society.

The DUI still dominates the Albanian political scene in the face of ineffectual opposition from the DPA, which remains mired in allegations of corruption and perceptions that it is intransigent on disarmament issues.

But on the ground, things sometimes look rather different – the DUI faces opposition in some Albanian-majority areas controlled by mayors loyal to its rival. It suffered a reverse in November when the government-sponsored campaign it was backing to encourage Macedonians to hand in their weapons ran into trouble, because of a boycott in 23 municipalities controlled by the DPA.

This weakness on the ground underlines criticisms that the DUI remains top-heavy, poorly organised and politically immature. Analysts in Macedonia say the party has only a handful of experienced officials, no proper party structure and no visible presence on the ground. And, they say, it is too reliant on its leader Ali Ahmeti, a charismatic figure whom one diplomat pointedly described as "the man who keeps Macedonia together".

"They need to get organised properly and then decentralise power to their regions,” a senior western diplomat told IWPR. “They might become a proper party in the end as they don’t have any competition. The DPA is discredited and its radical ideas are not massively supported by the population."

This view of the DPA is shared by many diplomatic sources in Macedonia, who told IWPR they believe the party is a spent force with a policy platform that offers little more than a return to the past.

The DUI’s advantage seems to be growing. The latest polls released in December by the United States’ International Republican Institute showed Ahmeti’s popularity rating up four percentage points from October to 11 per cent. By contrast, the popularity of DPA leader Arben Xhaferi slumped to four per cent.

For some observers, the DUI’s weak points are outweighed by its steadfast refusal to allow talk of ethnic partition, a positive factor which has played well with Macedonians. "This is probably the first time in a decade that Macedonian and Albanian parties have functioned properly in government,” a source in the government told IWPR. “The Albanian party usually just demands control of the western part of the country and is not interested in anything else. That’s not the case now."

But others point out that the DUI’s apparent strength may simply represent the lack of any reasonable alternative.

Ahead of local elections in October 2004, many of the Albanians who voted for the DUI two years ago are unhappy about the slow progress the governing coalition has made in implementing reforms set out in the Ohrid accord, and its failure to check former rebel commanders who are often accused of involvement in organised crime. The views of one 22-year-old man from Tetovo are fairly typical, "It turns out they [DUI] have no control over former commanders who go around stirring up trouble." Like many others, this man said he would nevertheless vote DUI again, because he cannot see a better option.

DUI leaders say they are well aware of the local concerns facing their voters, and are not taking their support for granted. “We have not forgotten our constituency,” the party’s deputy leader Teuta Arifi told IWPR. “It is true there are people who have been disappointed, but you have to bear in mind that there are problems and issues that we cannot resolve immediately. There are around 400,000 people unemployed. We are really focused on the key issues.”

Party members also told IWPR that the DUI is still a young organisation, and is trying to address concerns about its outreach by building up a party network in all the areas where Albanians live.

With the DPA in disarray, and no other major Albanian players emerging, the DUI’s most immediate challenge may be to avoid a run-in with its allies in government. SDSM leader Branko Crvenkovski has a reputation for marginalising previous Albanian coalition partners and riding roughshod over their concerns.

“The only danger for Ahmeti is if his voters see him as being manipulated by Crvenkovski,” one diplomat told IWPR.

Fami Bajrami is a journalist with the Albanian language weekly Lobi.

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