North Macedonia starts parliamentary election amid coronavirus spread

With mandatory face masks and a two-meter distance, North Macedonian citizens will vote this week in the first parliamentary election under the country new name.  It will be also the first time the elections are held on a weekday, on Wednesday,  after the vote was postponed from 12 April due to the pandemic.

On Monday the election already started for those some 5,000 people quarantined for the coronavirus. Electoral officials and medical teams with special provisions are taking the ballot boxes to their homes. Prisoners, the elderly and the ill can vote on Tuesday.

The country has been run by a caretaker government since January following the resignation of PM Zoran Zaev after the EU failed to set a date for North Macedonia to begin accession talks. Opinion polls in the run-up to Wednesday’s vote indicate a close race between coalitions led by the former governing Social Democrats and the center-right opposition VMRO-DPMNE party. The opposition is eager to return to power after losing the last election in 2016 following a decade running the country.

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Social Democrat-led coalition “Mozeme” (We Can) and the VMRO-led coalition “Obnova” (Renewal) are campaigning mostly through small gatherings and video messages.

The caretaker government handled the coronavirus outbreak relatively well until May, imposing a lockdown that kept the number of infections and deaths low. But after authorities eased restrictions and opened the borders, North Macedonia saw an increase in new cases and deaths that have placed it among the most badly affected European nations in terms of the number of deaths and confirmed cases per capita.

With more than 8,000 infected people and about 380 deaths in this country of around 2 million people by Sunday, the pandemic and its devastating economic consequences have become the main election issue. The opposition accuses Zaev’s party of being unable to deal with the outbreak or pull the country out of recession. Zaev, the Social Democrat leader, has touted his success in securing the country’s NATO membership after sealing a historic 2017 deal with neighboring Greece over the country’s name. Greece had been blocking the country’s NATO accession for three decades, objecting to the use of the name “Macedonia” which it said harbored expansionist claims on its own province of the same name.

Zaev also signed a friendship deal with Bulgaria, part of a push to resolve issues with neighboring countries and prepare for EU membership.

The Social Democrats beat the populist conservative VMRO-DPMNE party in 2016 after a decade of autocratic rule by its then-leader Nikola Gruevski, who fled to Hungary to avoid serving a two-year jail sentence for abuse of power and corruption. Hungary granted him political asylum and North Macedonia is seeking his extradition.

Gruevski’s successor, Hristijan Mickoski, moved VMRO-DPMNE toward the center-right and is appealing to voters disappointed with the country’s name change and the deal with Bulgaria. He also accuses the Social Democrats of corruption, influencing the judiciary, nepotism and destroying the economy.

If neither party wins enough seats to form a government, the largest ethnic Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration, or DUI, is the most likely coalition partner. DUI has been in coalition governments for the past 18 years, and now says it is “high time” for an ethnic Albanian to head the government. Its slogan “Pse Jo?” (Why not?) was chosen to challenge the last “remaining ethnic taboo” of an ethnic Albanian being named prime minister. Both main parties have rejected DUI’s idea. Ethnic Albanians make up about a quarter of North Macedonia’s population.

Over 1.8 million people are eligible to vote at nearly 3,500 polling stations. About 2,000 domestic and 130 international observers will monitor the process.

 

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