The presidential elections, still not officially started, already dominate in the media and political agenda. Candidates kicked-off their campaigns for getting as many votes as possible, and the first ping-pong arrows from one to the other headquarters have also started. Each party enters with a different agenda in the presidential elections, and they are usually diametrically opposed agendas. SDSM is fighting for predominance, VMRO-DPMNE is fighting for survival. The undecided are the ones that choose the direction in which the country moves. However, the fact that in these elections, the two major party blocs, especially among the Macedonians, play with so many agendas and visions of the future, can be an indication of additional polarization of the electorate during and after the elections. This game goes so far that the possibility of Macedonia ending up in yet another political and ideological crisis should not be excluded after the elections. If we consider, first of all, the strategies of the political parties in these elections, we will see that those agendas are not actually presidential. SDSM is fighting in these elections to continue its overall strategy, to maintain the direction in which the country is moving, that is, to legitimize its policies, and thus to have a medium-term political predominance. Namely, if their candidate wins in these elections with a significant majority, it will de facto mean that the electorate has legitimized their policies and is ready to give them support despite the smoldering dissatisfaction with the dynamics of implementing domestic reforms.
VMRO-DPMNE, on the other hand, is fighting for survival (of the party leadership), and for the fight to prove that the defeat in the elections, as well as the success of the government to resolve the name issue and thus push the country into Euro-Atlantic integrations, did not left the opposition party at back on the platform, while the train went ahead. The struggle for the opposition is to prove that it is still consolidated, strong, and that their national-romantic ideology, which they insist on in the last period, still exists in a significant part of the electorate. This will be measured by the number of votes the candidate receives, especially in the first round. If that number shows some consolidation, an increase from the previous results, it will be an indication for them that the national agenda is still strong, and they are vital. A big difference against their candidate, meanwhile, will mean that the agenda is dead, the Prespa Agreement and the general direction in which the country is moving is a closed issue, and that they will have to rebrand in that direction in order to remain a real political alternative.
This would bring some narrative axes to voters. The first, of VMRO-DPMNE, will be that the presidential elections are a new referendum, or a new chance to block or overturn the Prespa Agreement. This claim will bring some consolidation to the more radical-right voters around VMRO-DPMNE, especially considering the populist flirting with those emotions of the party’s presidential candidate. The second axis of SDSM will be the story that the best is yet to come, and that, despite the slowness of the reforms, the course is real and that keeping in that direction will soon bring benefits for the country and the citizens. This narrative actually a lot more difficult, because it demands from its voters a new chance, new patience, involvement of their rationality and constructiveness, rather than the previous one, that runs on emotions and dissatisfaction, and offers psychological relief right away, demanding that the electorate receive instant gratification against the government. These two major campaign directions, along with the numerous micro agendas, will create a binary polarization in the electorate: they will create the impression of an opportunity for a new overall milestone, in line with the continuation of Euro-Atlantic integration or re-blocking of the process. Thus, from the presidential, these elections will turn into elections that will legitimize or annul the overall strategic political direction, which is always a radical, bipolar atmosphere.
Such a mix will have several effects, which I think will complicate the political process. First, diametric strategies will bring a confrontational campaign with significant negative elements. Keep in mind that, if the first messages from the headquarters are considered, the candidates are not actually fighting who will take Macedonia into the EU faster, or who is going to be a better representative of the country outside its borders. They are fighting whether Macedonia should join the EU this way at all. The fight is not whether the supreme commander will soon implement NATO standards, the fight is whether we should continue on our path to NATO at all.
The problem with these opposing agendas is that they are likely to produce a new political crisis regardless of the outcome of the elections. The illusion that the revision of the Prespa Agreement is possible, and with it the fact that VMRO-DPMNE could block this process, if their candidate is elected, it will create a consolidation of the right-wing electorate, but around the wrong platform. The opposition, instead of accelerating its transformation into a technocratic, capable political party of a new Yuppie generation, will actually consolidate around a national platform, that is, about the same narrative that Ivanov has so far advocated, and will remain permanently marginalized and radicalized.
Thus, several risks will be created. The first is the risk of a boycott in the second round. If Pendarovski wins with a significant difference, the only option for fulfilling the blockade of Euro-Atlantic integration for VMRO-DPMNE will be unsuccessful elections – that’s the only way they politically continue to claim that “the people did not legitimize SDSM’s policy” by not coming out to vote, and that the people, in fact, chose to block the Prespa Agreement – that is their own conclusion from the referendum. This would certainly lead to a new political crisis, especially if their outcome in the first round is decent and leads them to new early general elections. The second option, if Siljanovska-Davkova wins, also leads to a new political crisis – she claims that she will not use the new name of the country, that she will block all the processes she could influence, and use the new name and the like. It would actually be a continuation of Ivanov’s strategy, preventing any move that would continue the current direction of the country, and of course also leads to the demand for new early general elections. The third option, if Pendarovski wins, will also create a new crisis. While it is true that the strategic direction of Euro-Atlantic integrations will not be threatened directly, however, that outcome will leave the opposition (VMRO-DPMNE) permanently radicalized, pushed in the far right political spectrum and consolidated around the wrong axes – the blockade of the Prespa Agreement, returning to the “Macedonian” and, of course, the inevitable conquest of Thessaloniki. It is hard to imagine that such an opposition will participate in the political process, especially in the reforms that require a two-thirds majority. So, with this outcome, I think that political dialogue and cooperation will end up in a new crisis.
So, whichever way you turn, a new political confrontation seems inevitable. This is mostly because the elections come before the voters have time to “get over” Prespa, and the opposition obviously has no problem messing with this wound and re-open it. So, we’ll keep bleeding for a long time.
Views expressed in this article are personal views of the author and do not represent the editorial policy of Nezavisen Vesnik