Open Field For Gligorov Succession

As Macedonia's veteran president Kiro Gligorov prepares to bow out of politics, would-be successors are jockeying for position in what is an increasingly open race.

Open Field For Gligorov Succession

As Macedonia's veteran president Kiro Gligorov prepares to bow out of politics, would-be successors are jockeying for position in what is an increasingly open race.

Ever since the former Yugoslavia disintegrated and Macedonia became an independent state, Kiro Gligorov has presided over his young country's destiny. Now as the 82-year-old president prepares to step down, Macedonia's political parties are all plotting strategies to have their own man succeed him.

While few candidates have yet to formally announce their intention to run, all presidential hopefuls will have to throw their hats in the ring in the next few weeks.

At the time of the parliamentary elections last October, most commentators considered that this year's presidential elections would be little more than a formality. Vasil Tupurkovski, the 48-year-old leader of the newly formed Democratic Alternative (DA) and Macedonia's last representative on socialist Yugoslavia's collective presidency, was the clear favourite.

Now, however, it appears to be an increasingly open race.

Notorious for his casual appearance and his penchant for dressing in football shirts, Tupurkovski allied his group with the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE).

This "Coalition for Change" emerged as the winner of the parliamentary elections, and VMRO-DPMNE leader Ljubco Georgievski became prime minister of a coalition comprising his own party, the DA, and the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA).

In return for Tupurkovski's support, Georgievski was expected to put his own party's weight behind Tupurkovski's bid for the presidency. The combined strength of both groups would thus ensure the defeat of all other candidates. But this gentlemen's agreement now appears unlikely to bear fruit for a number of reasons.

Tupurkovski's star has faded in recent months - in part because an agreement he struck earlier this year with Taiwan which traded diplomatic recognition for financial aid and investment, has so far failed to produce tangible results. On top of this, Tupurkovski was found to be away from Macedonia during much of the recent Kosovo crisis when many of his party's ministers were judged to have performed badly.

Perhaps more importantly, Georgievski is under pressure from his own party to field a candidate from within the ranks of VMRO-DPMNE as the leading political force in the country. Many in the party already view Tupurkovski with suspicion, feeling that his party benefited disproportionally when posts in the government were divided up among the partners.

Among VMRO-DPMNE politicians who are being discussed as potential presidential candidates are Deputy Foreign Minister Boris Trajkovski,

Finance Minister Boris Stojmenov, Defence Minister Nikola Kljusev, and Ljubisa Georgievski, the party's candidate in the 1994 presidential elections. Of these, Trajkovski, a 43-year-old methodist, seems the strongest contender. Popular with the electorate, he is one of Prime Minister Georgievski's most trusted lieutenants.

Georgievski has said he would announce his party's candidate in the coming weeks. Although it is still unclear which option he will choose, most commentators consider it likely that he will select somebody from within his own party.

Tupurkovski may well threaten to withdraw from the government in protest.

But since the Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) joined the government a few months ago, Georgievski no longer depends on the Tupurkovski's group to remain in power.

Moreover, DA members in the parliament and at the local level might decide to jump ship in order to keep their positions. Popular Interior Minister Pavle Trajanov, nominated by the DA, already tries to portray himself as a meritocrat rather than a party appointee- an indication that he would try to stay on should the current coalition fall apart.

If Tupurkovski fails to win VMRO-DPMNE backing and does decide to quit the government, he risks the future of his party. Most commentators therefore believe Tupurkovski will decide to remain in government.

While Georgievski's and Tupurkovski's decisions are likely to have the greatest impact on the presidential elections and future political developments in general, other potential candidates will also have some influence on the presidential race.

The ethnic Albanian parties - the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) and the Party of Democratic Prosperity (PDP) - have yet to unveil their electoral strategy. It nevertheless seems they are preparing to form a coalition and field a joint presidential candidate. Abdurauf Prusi, President of the Islamic charity "El-Hilal", has already been nominated by the PDP and is expected to be endorsed by the DPA.

An ethnic Albanian candidate, whether supported by both parties or not, will probably garner almost all ethnic Albanian votes in the first round, although his chances of advancing further are minimal. Given the ethnic Macedonian majority, his chances of becoming president are non-existent.

The dark horse is Stojan Andov of the LDP, a 64-year-old veteran politician, who has already declared that he will run. Although the LDP is in government--in what Andov describes as an administrative rather than a political capacity--it has, nevertheless, decided to back Andov's bid and to challenge its coalition partners.

According to opinion polls, Andov is popular and is expected to win more votes that his party in last year's elections, where the LDP gained only four of the 120 seats in the parliament. Andov himself took over the presidency on a temporary basis, while Gligorov recovered from an assassination attempt four years ago.

The great unknown remains the position of the former ruling party, the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM). Several senior members have been identified by the media as potential candidates, with former parliamentary speaker Tito Petkovski generally considered the front-runner.

Since the chances of an SDSM candidate winning the elections on his own are slim unless both Tupurkovski and a VMRO-DPMNE candidate run, the party might decide to put its weight behind an independent candidate.

In such a case, the SDSM could decide to back Andov, who is more popular among the electorate than any Social Democratic presidential hopeful. Not only could this ruin the chances of a coalition candidate winning the presidency, it would also open new options to the major opposition party and sow discord among the current government parties.

The SDSM has announced that it will await Georgievski's decision before determining its own strategy - an indication that support for a non-SDSM candidate is a real possibility.

Stefan Krause is a Skopje-based political analyst specialising in Macedonia, Bulgaria and Greece.

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