ELECTIONS Elections and human rights: Where do we go from here?


Local elections held in October 2017 in the Republic of Macedonia have been taken as a very promising sign for those concerned with the status of human rights not only within this small country, but throughout the Balkans. In their conduct, they have been described as relatively free and peaceful, a marked improvement over elections of recent memory. In their results, they heavily favored the coalition led by the Social Democrats (SDSM), which has promised a slate of reforms aimed at restoring public trust and further integrating the country’s ethnic Albanian minority, also a marked improvement over the once-formidable Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO), which for a full decade sought to capture the full resources of the state, the media, and even civil society for its own use.

That the usual election tactics deployed by VMRO – tactics of intimidation, misinformation, and its own special brand of extreme nationalism – did not work this time comes as extremely welcome news to any who have dared to dream of a democratic Macedonia, even as the noose of autocracy tightened, and who have dared to fight for that dream, often at great personal risk.

However, it is critical now that renewed hope not devolve into overconfidence and complacency. As CIVIL notes in its monitoring report, even this relatively peaceful and professional election was rife with irregularities. In the weeks leading up to the election, CIVIL monitors recorded incidences of voters pressured and intimidated into voting a certain way, at the risk of losing social benefits and even their jobs. On Elections Day, CIVIL monitors witnessed party activists engaged in vote-buying and harassment, and many instances of group and family voting as well. CIVIL heard reports of over a hundred citizens unable to vote as a result of irregularities with the Voters Register and of changes in polling locations of which voters were not notified. There were reports of violence, including an assault on one of CIVIL’s own monitors. Such irregularities have reduced in number in comparison with recent elections. Still, it is a matter of concern that so many of these irregularities derived from the behavior of the State Elections Commission (SEC) and local elections boards, which remained slow and ineffective in responding to the complaints of voters, and insufficiently trained to discharge their duties.

Such problems must, of course, be viewed within the context of the past decade during which the ruling party VMRO engaged in an all-out assault on the country’s democratic institutions, prompting international human rights groups to warn that the Republic of Macedonia was quickly becoming a “captured state.” Indeed, in the years between 2006 and 2016, the VMRO leadership brought not only the government sector under its control, but also the media, education and even the civil society sector under its increasing control. It sought not only to control how the people of Macedonia were governed and their money spent, but also how they conceived themselves, and their country, and what they believed to be true. When rewriting the past and present didn’t suffice, it launched a broad spying effort on journalists, civil society leaders, and even its own ministers, sewing paranoia, mistrust, and unrest.

Where do we go from here? How to move forward, now that the country has been granted a respite from de facto one-pparty reign? The first step is to recognize that, to the extent that positive changes will begin to take root, they will not be handed down from above. It will not be the long-stalled European integration process that will bring democracy and human rights to Macedonia. Nor will it be the new governing coalition, which has pledged to strengthen systems of accountability, but has thus far seen these systems turned almost exclusively on its political opponents. Nor can one say with complete confidence that positive change will come from Macedonian civil society, as this sector has also been polluted in recent years with nationalist organizations that would have the country cleansed rather than integrated. Perhaps it is best to say that change will come from all of these entities holding steadfast – and holding each other accountable – to the enormously complicated balancing act of promoting the norms of democracy, human rights, and tolerance above all else while also guarding against the perception (and in fact, the reality) that new laws and policies are being implanted without the consent, or even understanding, of those living in the country. It is almost impossible to get such a project “right,” but in making this effort, and with the willingness to face constant critique, we may see a new, more comprehensive human freedom take root in Macedonia, and indeed throughout the Balkans.

CIVIL’s monitoring results: many improvements, but problems remain

According to international and local monitoring organizations that covered the October 2017 local elections in Republic of Macedonia, it appears that the enormous efforts undertaken by the international community and by organizations like CIVIL to reform the country’s elections process are just beginning to pay off. The International Election Observation Mission launched by the OSCE/ODIHR reported that fundamental freedoms of voters were respected during the elections process, that candidates were able to campaign without restriction, and that the elections “contributed to strengthening confidence in the democratic process.” The OSCE/ODIHR and other organizations even detected improvements in the transparency of the State Elections Commission (SEC) in the second round of voting, after complaints were levied during the first round. All in all, the election period was assessed as relatively peaceful and professional.

However, it is important to note that when we say “relatively peaceful and professional,” this is meant in contrast to elections past, which featured extremely high levels of pressure and fraud. These include the parliamentary election held in December 2016, not even a year prior, in which thousands of citizens were denied the right to vote as a result of irregularities, incompetence, and corruption, while almost no voters were excluded from heightened pressure to vote a certain way. During that time, CIVIL monitors heard reports of government health service workers accompanying party members as they electioneered, portraying health services as emanating from the ruling party
instead of from the government. CIVIL monitors heard reports of schoolchildren pressured by their teachers to question their own parents about their political leanings, and to report back the results.

Thus, it is important to say that while organizations have mainly pronounced the October 2017 local elections as free, there still exists plenty of room for improvement. In the pre-election period, CIVIL noted that over a hundred names of eligible voters were missing from the voters register and, after following the proper channels of notifying the SEC of these missing names, were met with no response. During the pre-election period, CIVIL also noted that the training of elections officials could have been more robust – a critique that was echoed in the OSCE/ODIHR reporting. During the election silence period, CIVIL reported many violations, and provided video evidence of examples of inappropriate electioneering on its home page. Perhaps most troubling, it noted a trend of escalating rhetoric and propagandizing, including leaflets placed at voters’ doors containing hate speech against political opponents. These, of course, accompanied a campaign of misinformation that sought to fan public fears of a secret deal with the Albanians, and which also drummed up fears of an influx of refugees in one contested municipality.

During the first and second round of voting, CIVIL processed hundreds of complaints, the lion-share reflecting unlawful and inappropriate actions of members of election boards. On the first day of voting, October 15, CIVIL monitors noted that voting was interrupted entirely at the polling location in the Skopje municipality of Aerodrom after ballot irregularities required police intervention, prompting several voters to give up and leave before voting. In the future, measures should be put in place to ensure that voting is able to continue even as irregularities undoubtedly arise. On the same day, voting at a polling location in the Municipality of Berovo in eastern Macedonia was delayed for a full half hour when it was found that a stack of ballots did not contain proper tracking numbers. In the future, independent monitors should examine ballots in advance to ensure that avoidable irregularities such as these do not interrupt voting, particularly at the beginning of the day. In the village of Creshevo, a party headquarters was located in the same building as a polling location (though with separate entrances) and party activists openly and inappropriately engaged with voters. There were also reports at several polling locations of members of the election board mobilizing voters for specific parties.

The elections were also, unfortunately, not free of violence. In fact, on the second day of voting, October 29, one of CIVIL’s own monitors was threatened with violence in the municipality of Saraj by a member of the local elections board, forcing CIVIL to withdraw its observers on the day. Two days later, one of CIVIL’s activists, who served as an observer during the election was physically attacked by the same official. Such reports of irregularities and inappropriate actions on the part of elections officials are accompanied by reports of pressure by party members, vote-buying, violations of the secrecy of voting, and, as always, instances of family and group voting. While there appears to have been a reduction in threats against voter’s jobs and access to social services as a result of their voting behavior, that is not to say this election was free from such trends. If anything, we fear that voters have become so accustomed to such threats and pressures, that they are not reporting them at all.

The way forward

It is without a doubt that even taking the aforementioned problems in mind, the conduct and results of this election are extremely heartening to anyone who has watched with concern the steady decline of Macedonian democracy over the past decade. It is heartening that the once-dominant political party VMRO, which not so long ago was able to command near complete control over the media, including the public broadcaster to which it paid millions to produce films on “Macedonian history,” (which mostly denied or demonized the country’s minority communities), still was unable to make its case effectively before a public once held so rapt by its tales.

In the end, VMRO was able to capture a mere 5 mayoral seats, down from the 56 seats it held before the elections. It is heartening that VMRO party leader Nikola Gruevski, whose stranglehold on power once invited comparisons to Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was forced to step down from chairmanship of his party.

Still, it will take more than one election to undo more than a decade of institutional capture and many more decades than that of manipulation of the country’s ethnic identity. In this way, the work ahead is twofold: 1) there is the need to infuse weakened and dependent state institutions with a new life and a new independence that has in fact never been seen in the past (as such weakness and dependence pre-dates VMRO’s reign); 2) There is also, perhaps even more importantly, the need to address the legacy of the concretized ethnic Macedonian identity and conception of the state as something simple and pure when in reality the country is now, and has always been, a heavily multi ethnic crossroads. Again, here we are not talking about restoration of the multiethnic identity to pre-VMRO levels, because VMRO did not in fact invent this concretized conception of the national identity and Macedonian state. It simply capitalized upon pre-existing legacy of nationalism while manufacturing new concerns and new injuries – wounds which only VMRO could be entrusted to heal – so that no one would notice or question its theft of the state.

To begin to restore Macedonia as a place where all of its citizens can thrive, and realize the full range of human rights, will take a renewed commitment from the international community, from local political parties, and from civil society to hold true to that very goal –the goal of human freedom – as primary, even before the goal of putting Macedonia onto the European path, or of strengthening European borders, or of “stability.”

The goal now must be a country in which all can be thrive and be free, even if the European Union were to disappear tomorrow, and even if the new and promising ruling coalition were to collapse amid a flurry of scandals.

It is an extremely ambitious dream, yes, but after a decade of increasing autocratic rule, during which time a small group of people never gave up the fight, only to be joined by hundreds of thousands more in the darkest possible hour, it should be very clear that the Republic of Macedonia is a country that deserves no less.

Heather Roberson

Heather Roberson is a Human Rights and Balkans Specialist who holds an Undergraduate degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from University of California at Berkeley (2003) where she studied the implementation of the Ohrid Agreement; a Master’s Degree in Human Rights from Columbia University (2013); and a Certificate of Advanced Study from the Harriman Institute at Columbia University (2013) where she wrote on the rise of Macedonian ethnic nationalism in the post-Ohrid era.

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