The main theme of the upcoming presidential elections is once again the second round. This is not so much driven by worries of who could become President, as much as it is a matter of whether the second round will achieve the necessary turnout of 40%. If elections fail the country risks plunging into a new political crisis, that will result in a new round of negotiations and agreements between political leaders, wasting precious time, and ending with new elections with new uncertainty that they might again fail.
The very fact that the problem of reaching the necessary turnout repeats itself every time shows that it is a systemic crisis. As such it cannot be solved with momentary political tricks and cunning, but requires a systemic solution. The main driver of the problem seems to be the almost sure fact that the second round is always a battle between SDSM and VMRO, and that voters outside these parties are not motivated to go out and vote. Albanians, but also the smaller ethnic groups, as well as ethnic Macedonians of other parties have nothing to gain or lose, and thus it is difficult to persuade them to get out and vote. The necessary census is thus always in the air, which additionally gives SDSM and VMRO space to play the boycott card, a factor that further complicates the whole process.
Two ideas are so far circulating in public that try to address this situation, but in my view they are both fundamentally undemocratic. The first is to lower the threshold or completely do away with it. This trick was first used in 2009 when it was lowered from 50% to 40%, but this did not solve the problem. The other idea is to elect the President in Parliament, i.e. not to ask voters at all. In this case the election would be a matter of political deals between political parties, which would for sure turn the President into an extended hand of the Government, a circumstance that defeats the whole purpose of the institution. In both cases the decision is taken away from ordinary citizens, or put otherwise are solutions with less democracy.
Five years ago in a column for the daily Koha I proposed a third solution, which I think remains relevant, and given the events of the past few years is even more desirable. The idea is to copy the American way of electing a President, i.e. to introduce the institution of a Vice-President which would be elected in a “ticket” together with the President. Similar to the American model where the Vice-President automatically presides with the Senate, our Vice-President would at the same time be the Speaker of Parliament with a five-year mandate.
This manner of electing a President and Vice-President would not only solve the constant problem of failed presidential elections, but would at the same time solve a slew of related problems, which in the end would only make the country more democratic. Here are a few reasons why this solution is desirable.
1 – First of all in elections we would only have two or three pairs of candidate tickets, most likely from different political parties. Thus the motivation to vote would not come down only to VMRO and SDSM voters, but would expand with at least two big political parties. More often than not the elections would be over in the first round.
Obviously a more massive turnout cannot be reason enough to introduce a new institution – that of a Vice-President. Rather it should be looked at as a by-product of such a change, and would make elections safer, more effective and with more massive participation. That will result with a bigger political mandate and legitimacy of the elected duo of President and Vice-President, and the institutions themselves. The introduction of a Vice-Presidential function will practically strengthen the position of the President himself, and make it easier to serve as counter-balance to the Government, as it was always intended to be.
2 – If the Vice-President is at the same time the Speaker of Parliament, that function will gain in weight since it will be led by a person with much higher legitimacy than all previous speakers. For the past 30 years the Speaker is first elected as MP, and as such is elected with much smaller number of votes. For example the whole list in which Talat Xhaferi was elected got only 40.000 votes, and it is quite possible that in the future we could have a Speaker from a party with fewer than 1.000 votes. The Speaker always has too much institutional power compared to the votes he got, and this lack of political support and power prevents him from being a true controller and counterbalance to the Government, as it was intended.
This problem would be automatically solved if the Speaker is elected in direct elections as Vice-President. In this case he would have over 450-500.000 votes and would be a figure with much higher legitimacy and authority than all MPs, as a Speaker should be.
3 – This would also solve the problem of presidential succession. According to the Constitution if the President is unable to carry out the presidential function, he is succeeded by the Speaker. As things are now it means that someone with only a few thousand votes becomes President. In the proposed new system the President would be succeeded by the Vice-President/Speaker, someone elected with over 450-500.000 votes. In our current system the replacement does not really represent the will of the people; in the new one it would be exactly the one who had been voted with such a case in mind.
4 – One of the roles of the President is to be a unifying figure in times of crisis, and that should contribute to overcoming them. However the current system does not really provide any mechanisms to do that. Supported by a Vice-President who at the same time is a Speaker, the institution of President gains a few more options to dictate political events, i.e. by the controlling the Parliamentary agenda. In this case it is more enabled to contribute to solving various political crises.
5 – This manner of electing a Speaker also means continuity for the institution of Parliament. Even during and immediately after parliamentary elections the Parliament will have a Speaker (in 2017 it did not have a Speaker for months), it won’t be disputable who should call the first session of a new Parliament and who would succeed the President at such times. It will also avoid constitutional loopholes on who should sign decrees, as in the case of local elections that had to be delayed a few months since no one could decree them. In general this will mean a more stable Parliament, more stable and more democratic institutions.
The points above do not constitute a definite list, but I believe they are sufficient to start a debate for a new way of electing the President and better functioning of the institutions President and Parliament. It is also important and necessary to define the necessary technical and judicial aspects of the proposal, since it will require changes to the Constitution. But in essence I think it is a nice and quite feasible way of improving the political system of Macedonia.
Views expressed in this article are personal views of the author and do not represent the editorial policy of Nezavisen Vesnik