Despite gaps in legal framework, fundamental freedoms were respected in impartially administered referendum, international observers say in Skopje

Despite gaps in legal framework, fundamental freedoms were respected in impartially administered referendum, international observers say in Skopje

Although the legal framework did not sufficiently cover all aspects of the process, the 30 September referendum in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was administered impartially and fundamental freedoms were respected, the international observers concluded in a statement today. The absence of an organized “Against” or boycott campaign meant the media struggled to provide balanced coverage, although they did convey extensive information and a diverse range of views to voters.

Voters were asked “Are you in favour of EU and NATO integration by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?”, with implementation of the agreement considered a precondition for EU and NATO integration. The Constitutional Court received three challenges to the parliament’s decision to hold the referendum and the formulation of the question, all of which were rejected.

“The fundamental freedoms of assembly, association and expression were respected throughout the process and, although the lack of an official ‘Against’ campaign meant the views of the ‘For’ campaign dominated, the media provided extensive information and a broad spectrum of opinions,” said Ambassador Jan Petersen, Head of the ODIHR referendum observation mission. “The State Election Commission issued regulations to fill gaps in the legal framework, which raised questions about their legal authority to do so.”

While the authorities made some efforts to provide public information related to the agreement, its content was insufficiently explained, the statement says. The parliament, primarily through the ruling parties, led the “for” campaign, which also featured a high degree of engagement by foreign leaders and representatives of the EU, NATO and the United States. Although there was no active ‘Against’ campaign, a coalition of civic associations and two smaller political parties advocated a boycott through rallies and on social media, often featuring inflammatory, nationalistic rhetoric, the observers said.

“If we respect those who chose not to vote, we definitely must also respect those – more than half a million – who took the referendum seriously and decided to cast their ballot for the future of the country. They expressed their will, on this occasion, in a calm environment,” said Stefan Schennach, head of the delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. “Looking forward, we hope the issue of the accuracy of the voters’ lists will ultimately be solved.”

The State Election Commission administered the referendum impartially and held efficient and collegial public meetings, although these lacked substantive debate on key issues, the statement says. Lower level commissions generally worked in a professional manner and despite minor irregularities, voting on referendum day was assessed positively in 98 percent of polling stations visited by international observers.

The campaign finance rules do not include spending limits and lack clear disclosure and auditing requirements or related sanctions, the observers said. The government allocated some 1.3 million euros to the parliament to spend on television advertising, but the opposition declined, so only the “For” portion of public funds was spent.

The legal framework provides for monitoring by international and citizen observers. The “proposer” of the referendum – in this case the parliament – had the right to appoint representatives to observe in polling stations, but declined to do so.