Referendum Analysis

You will probably say, here he goes again about the referendum. It is true that the issue of the referendum has been heavily exploited in the media in the last few days, but I think that such a systemic dilemma deserves more detailed debate and more comprehensive analysis, and at the same time a more detailed explanation from my side. I do not usually engage in further clarification or answers, but I think that this important issue deserves explication.
Let’s be clear: my position on the referendum has nothing to do with my position on the deal with Greece. When I say that the only way for a fair way for citizens to voice their opinion is to reduce or to abolish the obligation for a census, and I mean this for both parties – I do not think that Macedonia will benefit from a referendum or other kind of plebiscitary clarification if any party in this project feels manipulated , cheated or damaged. I think that the decision should be made in the best possible and most democratic way possible, and that only with such plebiscitary catharsis we can continue with clear conscience, or go back, whatever the will of the majority.

The essence is that any referendum declaration has the primary and basic purpose, in the most appropriate way, to reflect the will of the majority in a political commitment to the elites that currently govern the state. I think that the legal solution for a referendum at this point allows this to be done on this issue. Therefore, I think that the Macedonian model of referendum is not applicable to such a decision. For those who are interested in why, it would make sense to continue reading.

The Macedonian legal system recognizes two types of referendum: compulsory and non-compulsory. The law stipulates in which cases a referendum (change of borders and membership in an alliance or union) must be held, and in other cases, which are not obligatory, a referendum is announced for issues of strategic interest. A non-compulsory referendum (as it would be for the name issue) can be consultative or decisive. In doing so, the referendum would be successful if more than half of the total number of voters cast their votes, and at the same time more than half of the voters cast their votes “in favor”. The referendum would be unsuccessful if a certain number of voters do not come out to vote, or if more than half of them vote “against”. A consultative referendum does not produce a legal effect in any outcome, while a decisive, or compulsory referendum produces a legal effect, i.e. obligation for the authorities, but only if it is successful.
Here we are faced with the main problem: according to the law, the referendum produces legal force only if it is successful, and if it is not (for any of the two reasons, a census or a majority against), it is legally invalid as if it never happened. This means that according to the Macedonian legal system, it is not possible to vote for option A or option B in a referendum, and for the chosen option to be binding on the government. If the referendum is successful, then it creates an obligation (depending on the type of question) to the option “in favor”, and if it is unsuccessful, then it’s all for nothing, it does not create an obligation for the option “against”. In other words, the issue of such a referendum can not be “whether you are in favor or against the agreement with Greece,” and both responses have a legal effect. The question can be “are you in favor of implementing the agreement with Greece” or “are you in favor of canceling the agreement with Greece”, for instance. But, if the question is “do you support an agreement with Greece,” a successful referendum obliges parties to implement it, and the failed does not oblige them to invalidate it, because the failed referendum is null and void. Conversely, if the question is “are you in favor of canceling the agreement with Greece”, a successful referendum obliges parties to annul it, while the failed referendum does not oblige them to implement it. That is the problem with the binary referendum, as defined in the Macedonian law.

Therefore, as it is thought-out, the referendum in Macedonia makes sense only if you want plebicitary to impose a compulsory positive regulation or act, while there is a burden of proof for the one who calls it, ie. one who according to the question asked, expects an answer “in favor”. This entity should provide two cumulative conditions (census and majority), while the other should provide either abstinence or a majority against, in order to make the referendum unsuccessful, but at the same time null and void. So, this referendum makes sense only to annul or override an existing legal solution, or to impose something completely new. Therefore, in the referendum on a territorial organization that was organized against the then law, the question was “are you in favor of the 1996 law,” because a successful referendum would oblige lawmakers to implement it.

Subsequently, the artificial and too high census, created on the basis of an electoral list without a population census, makes it practically impossible to have a successful referendum. The census for a successful referendum is currently set by a majority of the registered voters (following the list, about 1.8 million, which means just over 900,000 voters), in conditions when, according to official numbers, more than 400,000 voters are permanently not here, i.e. have moved out. This is unrealistic and is an unjustly high threshold. That is why the census for the election of the president of the state has been reduced, and at the same time it is one of the reasons why Macedonia has not had a successful referendum after the one for independence, of which we do not have real data for the turnout.

Therefore, in total, such a placement in the referendum leaves too much room for manipulation. Here is a more practical explanation: if the question is “are you for annulment of the agreement with Greece”, VMRO-DPMNE should be able to get the majority to come out, majority to vote “in favor”, and SDSM should either stay home or vote “against” – and according to the census, it is safer to stay at home, either way VMRO-DPMNE has no chance of conducting a successful referendum. If it is the other way round, and the question is “are you in favor of the agreement with Greece”, SDSM should fulfill the two conditions (census and majority), and for VMRO-DPMNE or any other opposition, would be no census, or voting “against”. In either of these cases, one of these has no fair chance, there is no equal field for a match.

And that’s all because of the setting of the census. Such a setup always “registers” abstainers on the “against” side, because turnout is a condition for success, rather than as it is proper, for abstainers to be considered as ambivalent, insufficiently interested in decision, while the ones that come out to vote to make the decision. Therefore, under such circumstances, it is realistic that no political coalition in Macedonia has enough voters to conduct a successful referendum independently, so opponents (regardless of whether in the given case it is SDSM or VMRO-DPMNE) can, although they are a minority, with abstinence control the outcome of the referendum, although perhaps the majority supports some sort of decision. So, if we assume that both SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE have 350,000 voters and that the SDSM voters are in favor of the agreement, while the VMRO-DPMNE voters are against, and 200,000 Albanians are almost all in favor of the contract, the mathematics is as follows: 550,000 voters for the agreement can be voted out by 350,000 voters, if the latter stay home and “annul” the referendum that way. Ironically, it would be a Pyrrhic victory, because a failed referendum would not oblige the SDSM government to annul the agreement with Greece.
Therefore, I claim that the only fair competition is to abolish or reduce the census, and all parties to call their voters or supporters to come out, to vote as they think, with the parties having previously pledged that the results, whatever they are, would be binding. Thus, they would have a fair match, no threat from a boycott, and both sides have equal chances of success. Bearing in mind that the two camps claim that the majority is on their side, I do not know why they would be afraid of such an explanation, or why would be hiding behind a possible boycott.

Petar Arsovski