Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Xhaferi Rivals To Mount Challenge?

Albanian members of the Macedonian government are enjoying enviable backing from their ethnic kin - but their high approval rating may be about to drop.
By Tom Hughes

The ruling coalition partner, the Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, led by the popular Arben Xhaferi, is riding high in the polls, but may soon face a concerted challenge from one of its main rivals.

It has a six fold-lead over the its nearest credible rival, the opposition, Albanian Party for Democratic Prosperity, PDP, and looks set to triumph in forthcoming municipal elections.

The DPA's Macedonian coalition partners, the VMRO-DPMNE and the Democratic Alternative, meanwhile, have seen their fortunes slump amongst their own constituency.

Ethnic Macedonians are critical of a lack of transparency in economic policy, the allegedly dishonest sale of the state-owned industries and what they regard as excessive concessions to minority communities.

Unless the DPA is careful, it may suffer the same fate of its Macedonian counterparts.

A recent revival in the political fortunes of the PDP coupled with the involvement of DPA leaders in number of scandals, however, could erode support for the governing Albanian party.

Much of the DPA's popularity can be attributed to Xhaferi. Even his opponents acknowledge he is one of Macedonia's most astute and articulate political figures.

His ability to appeal to the nationalistic sentiments of the ethnic Albanian electorate and at the same time play a constructive role in the republic's multi-ethnic government is key to his success. Such skills were crucial for maintaining stability in the country at the time of the Kosovo crisis last year.

Xhaferi's political acumen has buttressed his reputation amongst Albanian leaders of neighbouring Balkan countries. He has sought to strike a balance in his relations with them, but is rumoured to be closest to the Democratic Party of Kosovo and Socialist Party of Albania.

The recent DPA third anniversary celebrations attracted the likes of Fatos Nano, the leader of the ruling Socialist Party of Albania, Jemin Gjana, Deputy President of Democratic Party of Albania, and leading Kosovar politicians, including Hashim Thaci and Adem Demachi.

The ineffectiveness of the PDP while in government also goes a long way to explain the DPA's current poll ratings. The PDP, for example, was unable to elevate the constitutional status of ethnic Albanians from a minority to a nation. Failure to prevent a series of incidents of police brutality during public disturbances in Skopje in 1992, Tetovo in 1995 and Gostivar in 1997 also tainted the party's reputation.

Xhaferi has succeeded in exploiting these mistakes, persuading voters the PDP is incompetent and that the DPA is the best alternative for the ethnic Albanian community.

Although DPA policies, in fact, differ little from those of their rivals, Xhaferi has been more effective in bringing these to fruition than his PDP predecessor, Abdurahman Haliti.

The DPA has ensured the appointment of more ethnic Albanians to the higher levels of government and recently secured the release on bail of a former Kosovo Liberation Army commander, Xhavit Hasani.

The latter served to emphasise the Xhaferi's influence and contrasted starkly with the PDP's inability to prevent harsh sentences being handed down to the ethnic Albanian mayors of Gostivar and Tetovo following the 1997 riots.

The role played by the party's deputy leader, Menduh Thaci, is also a factor in current DPA success. Thaci is often seen as the dynamo behind the party's efficient and far-reaching structure.

Mobilising popular support is also helped by the fact the DPA controls much of the Albanian language media. Both of the daily ethnic Albanian newspapers, 'Flaka' and 'Fakti', are either government owned or closely affiliated to the DPA. The main Albanian language television news broadcast on MTB II also voices pro-government opinion.

Despite the strength of the DPA, there have been signs in recent months of possible difficulties ahead.

In April, the PDP appointed a new party leadership, which has adopted an increasingly aggressive and co-ordinated stance.

The listlessness and contradictory policies which once characterised the party have gone. A stronger PDP could point the spotlight at a series of ethnically contentious issues likely to damage the DPA.

'Tetovo University', a self-proclaimed Albanian institution, and Albanian language higher education in general constitute an extremely important and symbolic part of the community's demands for linguistic and cultural parity.

However, by accepting the recommendations of OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, the DPA has reversed a policy it held in opposition of demanding a state-funded multi-discipline Albanian language University, equal in stature to the existing universities in Skopje and Bitola.

Instead, the DPA has agreed to terms that foresee the sidelining of 'Tetovo University' and the establishment of an internationally funded multi-lingual higher educational institution focusing on teacher training, business management and public administration.

This move has left the DPA vulnerable to attacks from the PDP and the vocal and politically-active director of 'Tetovo University', Dr. Fadil Sulejmani.

Another point of DPA weakness is the party's supposed failure to curtail police brutality against ethnic Albanian communities following the shooting of three ethnic Macedonia police officers in Aracinovo at the beginning of the year.

Xhaferi and Thaci have also been implicated in a series of scandals in recent months. Xhaferi is alleged to have taken bribes while Thaci has been accused of involvement in tobacco smuggling. These allegations have damaged the party's reputation among Macedonia's other ethnic communities, but not Albanian voters.

Despite a PDP revival and unsavoury scandals, it still seems likely the DPA will continue to dominate the ethnic Albanian political scene until the municipal elections in September and beyond.

Tom Hughes an analyst for an international organisation in Skopje.

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