Although there is an agreement among political stakeholders that the key decision to accept or reject the Prespa Agreement between Macedonia and Greece should be made by the citizens, political actors still cannot agree on the formulation of a referendum question, which should (de) motivate the citizens to come out and actively participate in making a very important political decision. It could, but it does not have to stop the dynamics of the activities in relation to the preparation of the referendum, given the information coming from the governing structure that patience has come to an end and that despite efforts to provide consensual support for the plebiscitary opinion, there is readiness to push through the entire process without the desired finalization of the internal dialogue, ie direct political participation of the main opposition party, which is certainly not a desired option for anyone.
The referendum should unite, that is, be a compromise point in which everyone would be obliged to accept the results. While the government believes that the referendum question should include the agreement with Greece, but also the integration into the EU and NATO as an imperative derived from the agreement, the opposition, in turn, sees in such a formulation the possibility of manipulation and demands that it be uniquely addressed only to the change of name. This fear is somewhat odd, since the opposition political leaders constantly repeat that citizens cannot be manipulated, that they will certainly recognize the moment and make the right decision.
“Our position is clear and it is the party’s position, the referendum question must be unambiguous, which in fact defines the law on referendum itself, but also the Constitution itself. What we have here in general is difference in opinion with the parliamentary majority,” the leader of VMRO-DPMNE said after a leadership meeting that ended without an agreement on the referendum details.
The question of the referendum, which forms the basis for the further development of events, causes disagreements between the parties, as well as the expert public. Some consider that the question should not contain two components like the referendum in 1991, but should include the title of the agreement with Greece, others think that the EU and NATO must be included as an imperative derived from the agreement with Greece, and for others, the order is of importance – firstly, the name agreement is to be pointed out, followed by the addition of the EU and NATO integrations as a condition that this is done with that goal.
Professor of Constitutional Law, Temelko Risteski, believes that the issue that recently, as an eventual possible solution in the public, was put forward by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev – “Are you in favor of the EU and NATO membership by accepting the name agreement with Greece?” – is not confusing to citizens. In a statement to the media, the possible question of whether you are in favor of membership of the EU by accepting an agreement between Macedonia and Greece is very clearly set out because the goal of the majority of the citizens of Macedonia is to join the EU and NATO and, as he points out, there is no trick, but on the contrary all factors are brought before the citizens.
In the referendum declaration for independent Macedonia in 1991, the citizens were offered a series of consultations in the state leadership: Are you in favor of an independent Macedonia with the right to join a future alliance of sovereign states of Yugoslavia?
Part of the team that created the question was former Minister of Finance and President of the Macedonian Parliament Nikola Popovski. Based on his experience, we asked if the referendum issue in this case should be simplified or should contain more facilities as an explanation for the citizens and targeting the essence.
“I think the question should be short, simple, non-confusing. I am not at all for questions that are too complex. The more understandable, the better. Citizens should know exactly what they are voting for,” Popovski said.
Asked, however, whether the possible involvement of NATO and the EU makes the question complex, he adds that “all aspects contained in the agreement will be explained in the referendum campaign”.
The issues over compiling referendum questions are not only a problem for Macedonia, but also for countries with a far greater democratic pedigree. Such was, say, the case of Brexit. The British government in the draft referendum law initially predicted the question: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?’ and the answer to be either “yes” or “no”. The new proposed formulation (after it was concluded that the previous was in favor of staying in the Union) was “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the EU or leave the EU, and voters can then choose among the answers: “Remain a member of the EU “, Or “Leave the EU”.
The formulation of the referendum question is not an insignificant question. Research confirms that the results of the citizens’ explanation influence how the question will exactly be answered. So, let’s say, the results of the Eurobarometer survey published at the beginning of the year, and in the context of the problem between Kosovo and Serbia that condition the euro-integration process of the northern neighbor, show that if at that moment a referendum was held with the question “Do you support Serbia’s accession to the EU “, more than half of the citizens (52 percent) would respond with a positive answer. However, in the research of the Belgrade Center for Security Policy whether they are entering the EU if the requirement is recognition in Kosovo, 69% of the citizens gave a negative answer. When those same citizens were asked if they were ready to fight in order for Kosovo to remain in Serbia, 73 percent said no.