Macedonia Prepares For A New President

Six candidates are competing in the first round of Macedonia's presidential elections. But the real choice is between the prime minister's VMRO and the retiring president's Social Democrats.

Macedonia Prepares For A New President

Six candidates are competing in the first round of Macedonia's presidential elections. But the real choice is between the prime minister's VMRO and the retiring president's Social Democrats.

Thursday, 10 November, 2005

Macedonia will go to the polls October 31 to elect a successor to 82-year-old President Kiro Gligorov, who is stepping down after two terms in office.

Voters have a choice of six candidates from the country's major political parties. Since the president must be elected by a majority, a runoff between the two leading candidates on 14 November is inevitable.

Of the six candidates, two - Muharem Nexhipi of the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) and Muhamed Halili from the Albanian opposition Party for Democratic Prosperity (PDP) - have no chance of reaching the second round. The chances of another two leader of the Democratic Alternative (DA) Vasil Tupurkovski and Stojan Andov of the Liberal Democratic Party - also look rather slim.

The most likely scenario is that the candidates from the country's two biggest parties - Boris Trajkovski of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) and Tito Petkovski of the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia - will face each other in the second round.

As the ethnic Albanian vote will be split between Nexhipi (currently deputy health minister) and Halili (a former government minister and now Macedonia's ambassador to Denmark), neither is likely to get past the first round. But this does not seem to be the prime concern of either party. What matters for them is to establish which of the two parties is the main representative of ethnic Albanians in Macedonia. By all accounts, the DPA should win this parallel contest. It is in the government and can do more for its constituents, while the PDP is plagued by a long record of corruption and internal strife.

Among the four ethnic Macedonian candidates, Tupurkovski, who looked like a near-certain winner just a year ago, now looks bound to be a loser. Tupurkovski, director of the government Agency for Reconstruction and Development, was tipped to win as the ruling coalition's joint candidate. But he failed to get the support of his coalition partners and he lost credibility by failing to fulfil the populist promises he made in last year's parliamentary election campaign to bring in massive amounts of foreign investment and assistance.

Tupurkovski's campaign slogan is "A Step into the 21st Century." Although the DA is part of the ruling coalition, his campaign has been characterised by frequent attacks on the government. This has damaged his standing, as have his claims that the promises he made last year have actually started to come to fruition. Although he is charismatic and highly intelligent, Tupurkovski is perceived less and less as a serious politician. Most opinion polls put him in third or fourth place, with very few chances of making it into the runoff.

Veteran politician Stojan Andov, a former parliamentary chairman and at 63 the oldest candidate, is generally well-respected and might have a better chance than Tupurkovski. But he lacks the support of a strong party machinery.

Although he usually presents himself as a man of the political centre, Andov chose as his campaign slogan "For Order in the Country" and plays on the anti-Albanian feelings of many ethnic Macedonians by stressing the indivisibility of the country. Whether the electorate will accept his claim that he is the most experienced candidate and therefore the best choice, remains to be seen.

Trajkovski and Petkovski are the clear favourites. At 43, Trajkovski is the youngest candidate. A Methodist, he rose to prominence a year ago and is now deputy foreign minister. His campaign slogan is "I Believe in Macedonia" and his whole campaign, notable for its lack of attacks on competitors, has been based on traditional values such as love, religion and family.

This "good cop" approach, however, is complemented by attacks on the other candidates made by the "bad cop," party leader and Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski. Trajkovski's main problem is that he lacks charisma and the public is not convinced that he will be an independent president or represent all Macedonian citizens. But with the backing of the VMRO-DPMNE, the biggest party in the ruling coalition, he is almost certain to make it into the second round.

His adversary in the runoff will probably be 54-year-old Petkovski. A former parliamentary chairman, Petkovski should also be able to capitalise on the support of a big party, and may pick up votes from people disaffected with the current government. "Everything for Macedonia," Petkovski's campaign slogan, is augmented by "Five Principles: Democracy, Employment, Family, Stability, Macedonia." Petkovski runs a professional campaign and is perceived as being an honest and serious politician - unlike some other Social Democrats who have been implicated in various scandals during the party's long term in government.

Ultimately, Macedonia is faced with a choice between cohabitation or almost complete domination by one political camp. Which of the two scenarios becomes reality will depend on the decisions made by those whose candidates drop out after the first round. Recent opinion polls suggest that either scenario could be played out, and the second round promises to be a close race.

Regardless of who wins, Macedonia's long-term objectives are not likely to be affected by the outcome of the elections. The president is not in a constitutional position to shape the country's policies, especially if he finds himself in opposition to the government.

More important, all major political forces realise that Macedonia has little choice but to work towards integration into European and trans-Atlantic structures. They also accept that some of the main prerequisites for this are stable inter-ethnic relations and further democratisation and economic reforms.

Stefan Krause is a Skopje-based political analyst with the International Crisis Group.

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