As election frenzy rises with the approaching of the general elections in Macedonia, one thing is clear - a lot depends on them. On 5 July voters will go to the polls to elect the new parliament. Things have to go smoothly this time

19/06/2006 -  Risto Karajkov Skopje

As election frenzy rises with the approaching of the general elections in Macedonia, one thing is clear - a lot depends on them. On 5 July voters will go to the polls to elect the new parliament. Things have to go smoothly this time.

For months now the international community has been repeating the chorus that the future international integration of the country will depend on the upcoming elections. Macedonia was awarded an EU candidate status in December of 2005, without a date for start of negotiations. As early as back than, it was said that the next big step for the country will be the quality of the following national elections. Macedonia needs to make sure that elections are free and fair, says the international community.

The last elections in Macedonia which took place in March of 2005, at local level, got the usual poor grades by the international safeguards of democracy processes, the OSCE, NATO, and the EU, though it is fair to say that their appraisals varied. The list of standard election flaws included stealing ballots, filling of ballot boxes, group voting, intimidation of voters, forged signatures in electoral lists. The blunders repeat from one election cycle to the next. Occasional more dramatic incidents also involve intimidation attempts with firearms. A few election cycles ago Macedonia also had human casualty during elections, when one party activist was shot dead on election day.

NATO General Secretary Jaap de Hoop Scheffer visited Skopje last week to personally deliver his message. Macedonia expects an invitation to join NATO in 2008. The invitation hinges on the quality of the electoral process.

"The allies and I expressed concern after last year's local elections. Now we all hope that the forthcoming elections will be conducted by the highest democratic standards, which is to be expected by a NATO candidate country", said Mr. de Hoop Scheffer.

Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski promised Mr. Scheffer that last years irregularities will not repeat.

"I am convinced" said Mr. Buckovski, "that with the civic pressure which citizens will exert on politicians, they will create the atmosphere whereby everybody will be ready to accept the results".

Similar was the message of US Vice President Dick Cheney during the early May meeting with the prime ministers of Croatia, Macedonia, and Albania in Dubrovnik. In addition to participation in peace keeping missions, first task for Macedonia - is the upcoming elections.

Political representatives and analysts alike reiterate the imperative of having everything by the book this time and reinforce a climate in which repeating of some of the common failures can have serious consequences for the country. It is true that this is how the entire process of international democracy promotion works, by exerting strong and continued pressure on the candidate to be "democratized", but it is also true that some practices of "Balkan style democracy" cannot be tolerated forever.

"The upcoming elections in Macedonia are particularly important and it's on their outcome that depends whether Skopje can hope for a timely start of the accession negotiations" said recently for Voice of America the advisor of the US Helsinki Commission, Mr. Robert Hand.

In a similar vein, according to the Washington based European Stability Initiative analyst, Ms. Christina Hammon, the elections on 5 July are important for two reasons, to demonstrate Macedonia's capacity to organize fair and democratic elections, and to ensure the Europeans that the country stays on its Euro-Atlantic course regardless of changes in leadership.

OSCE representatives visited Macedonia end April and said they were encouraged by the political leadership of the country to hope for and expect a fair election process by all international standards. Just in case however, the OSCE is considering sending a monitoring mission twice bigger than the one for the last local elections, when 260 international monitors observed the democratic process.

"The organizing of the parliamentary elections is a key moment. The OSCE will monitor the elections and send in a strong monitoring team", said thereat its Chairman Carel de Gucht.

Responding to the internationally created momentum, political parties in the country gathered beginning of this week behind a joint codex for fair elections sponsored by the National Democratic Institute (a US nonprofit with strong engagement wit democracy assistance programs) and the local election monitoring group "Most".

"This is a clear signal for your political activists and supporters, and above all for the electorate and the citizens - that there is no choice. The elections have to be fair." said Chris Henshaw, director of NDI in Skopje.

According to the EU Ambassador in the country, Mr. Ervan Fuere, the elections are the critical test for the country. "They have to be more successful than any previous elections, they have to be the most successful elections the country has ever had", says Mr. Fuere.

Macedonian counterparts respond to the chorus with pledges and promises. Some also say that if the country passes the test, it deserves to be awarded.

"After the upcoming general elections we rightfully expect to get a starting date for negotiations with the EU, which will be additional support and recognition of our efforts", said recently President Branko Crvenkovski.

The elections campaign stated on 15 June and it will last until midnight of 3 July. Most of the parties however started with intense campaigning activities quite before the official start of the campaign. This according to some analysts already sends a bad signal to the internationals.

There are 1.741.449 voters registered for this round of elections, and they will be voting for 2.700 candidates featured on 135 candidate lists submitted by 33 parties. The voting goes by the proportional model in 6 electoral units.

Two strongest political blocks are the already common coalitions between the Social Democrats (SDSM) and the Albanian Union for Integration (DUI), currently in power, on one hand, and VMRO - DPMNE and the Democratic Part of the Albanians (DPA) on the other.

A recent poll by an local think tank, the Institute for Solidarity, Democracy and Civil Society, gave the lead in the Macedonian camp to VMRO - DPMNE with 33,3%, before SDSM with 25,1%, and in the Albanian one to DUI with 14,7%, before DPA with 8,9% of the vote. The poll found however 47, 3% of the voters to be still undecided, and some 26% not planning to vote.

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