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Poll Incidents Mar Macedonian Image
Incidents of ballot stuffing, proxy voting and violent intimidation in the first round of municipal elections on March 13 have dented Macedonian hopes of getting a positive avis from the European Union and gaining candidate status by the end of the year, analysts and international observers have warned.
The municipal elections were the first to take place since parliament passed controversial decentralisation reforms, devolving key powers to new and enlarged local authorities.
The reforms formed the final chapter to the western-brokered Ohrid peace accord, which ended a bout of fighting between the security forces and ethnic Albanian rebels in 2001.
A preliminary report by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, ODIHR, was damning. It said the vote had "failed to meet key commitments guaranteeing universal and equal suffrage and the secrecy of the ballot".
Julian Peel Yates, head of the OSCE/ODIHR mission, told the media,"The serious and persistent irregularities in a significant number of municipalities undermine the [election] process as a whole."
Yates added, "The behaviour of the persistent offenders must change before the second round."
OSCE observers reported problems in about 10 per cent of polling stations that they visited, including ballot stuffing, tension in and around polling stations and examples of intimidation. The police were called to intervene in 20 cases and several people were detained.
Most irregularities were reported in the predominantly Albanian municipalities of Saraj and Aracinovo, near Skopje, as well as in Suto Orizari, which is mainly Roma inhabited. Other incidents were reported in the former 2001 crisis areas of Lipkovo and Tearce.
The opposition Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, accused the ruling coalition (together with its Albanian partner, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI) of responsibility for the cases of ballot stuffing, intimidation and proxy voting.
Muddle also surrounded the outcome of the Skopje mayoral race, where the opposition this week called the elections fraudulent. This followed a ruling by the electoral commission that the opposition candidate had not won enough votes to get through in the first round.
That sharply contradicted with data supplied by the opposition parties, which said their candidate, Trifun Kostovski, won 53 per cent of the votes.
The opposition's figures were supported by the respected local election monitoring association, MOST, which said it believed Kostovski had defeated Risto Penov, incumbent mayor and leader of the Liberal Democrats, which is part of the ruling coalition. Long delays before the results of the Skopje municipalities were announced added to many people's doubts about their reliability.
Whether all the allegations surrounding the local elections are substantiated, analysts agree the furore may undermine Macedonia's bid to get a green light for EU membership.
The West has conditioned Macedonian integration into the EU and NATO with the full implementation of the Ohrid deal, which aimed to bolster the rights of Macedonia's large Albanian community.
Mirjana Najcevska, head of the Macedonian Helsinki Committee, says the elections suggested that Macedonia had failed a serious test of its democratic credentials.
"The way we held these elections shows we didn't learn the basic lessons of democracy," she told IWPR. "That will present a very serious obstacle for Macedonia on its path to the EU."
Nazmi Maliqi, professor of political science at University of South East Europe in Tetovo, agreed. The polls "sent a bad, pessimistic message about Macedonia's democratic potential, especially in the light of European integration", he said.
"On the road to EU, it is unacceptable to have any incidents [like this] at all," he added.
Maliqi said comparisons with the 2000 local elections, when one person was killed and violence and irregularities were far worse, were no excuse.
Tanja Karakamiseva, a professor at the law faculty in Skopje University, told IWPR she could discern a developing pattern of election irregularities ever since Macedonian independence in 1991.
"What is especially worrying is that the number of municipalities where irregularities occur is actually increasing," she told IWPR.
"That shows Macedonia cannot abandon its old practices of election misconduct. The message it sends to Brussels is terrible. The first signal that something is not right in a democracy is an inability to conduct fair and free elections."
Analysts say international observers resorted to strong language about the first round of voting in the hope that it may prevent worse incidents in the second round on March 27.
Michael Sahlin, the EU's special envoy to Macedonia, told IWPR he thought Skopje would sit up and take action.
"We have the impression that the government intends to prosecute the wrongdoers," he said. "It is important that the second round becomes model for elections."
Goran Pavlovski, an interior ministry spokesman, told IWPR that charges would be filed against more than a dozen people involved in the incidents.
The law was recently amended to bring in harsher penalties against perpetrators of election malpractice. Disrupting polling can now be punished by up to ten years in jail.
What concerns the authorities, however, is that the second round of voting in Macedonia is usually the more disruptive and incident-prone of the two.
“Usually in the second round the tension is higher, so everything is possible," Maliqi said.
But according to Najcevska, the damage to the country's image will not easily be rectified at this stage.
"The way in which the first round was held cannot be corrected by the second one,” she said, "even if it is fair and democratic."
Mitko Jovanov is a journalist with daily Dnevnik. Tamara Causidis is IWPR Macedonia`s assistant editor.
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