Besides its implications for the name agreement and EU and NATO integration, the referendum vote can be read from a purely political angle. It offers a snapshot of the political weight of each political factor in the country, one year after the local elections. Below are a few conclusions.
1 – Weakness of SDSM. Assuming Albanians voted in the referendum along the numbers from the last two elections, and the minorities did the same, SDSM fell far short of its vote from parliamentary or local elections. Depending on the exact numbers of Albanians and minorities who voted this figure moves between 50.000 and 100.000 votes. In any case, it is clear that SDSM failed to fully turn out its own voters, let alone bring more to the voting booths. The census was far too high and unrealistic, but clearly SDSM should have done better.
The referendum result now complicates its math for eventual parliamentary elections, whether they be held this year or in spring. With this setback it is not even clear if it could improve its current standing in Parliament. This is why we will certainly hear more and more about a wide pro-Europe coalition which would include all parties but VMRO. This is not a result of some higher ideal, it rather speaks of the fear of SDSM to face voters alone.
2 – Weakness of VMRO. Apart from a certain sense of “Schadenfreude”, VMRO is in no better shape, no matter what happened to SDSM. The 600+ thousand votes for the agreement were too few, but VMRO could not dream of mustering that many votes “against” even if it was fully engaged in the process. That is why it preferred to “chicken out” and comically try to present an abstention as a vote for itself.
Thinking ahead to elections VMRO knows that it will never have more votes than the pro-Europe camp. Furthermore, with the name issue unresolved it has no coalition potential, and will certainly find itself in opposition again and again. This is exactly why it does not really want elections now, and why all its proposals are in fact attempts to buy more time. Contrary to its spins, the referendum result dealt it a bad hand, or rather a hand which it does not know how to play.
3 – Nothing strange in the Albanian bloc. Albanians seem to be equally blamed by both sides after the referendum. The pro camp certainly had higher expectations for their turnout, while the ‘against’ camp thinks that too many of them actually voted and tries to blame this on ballot-stuffing.
Looking at turnout numbers in Albanian population centers, the turnout is somewhere between local and parliamentary elections. This translates to between 220.000 and 250.000 votes cast. While the turnout in some polling places really does look suspiciously high, these are mostly in small rural places. Even if ballot stuffing did really occur, their total number should not be too high, certainly not 50.000 as some pro-VMRO pundits claim.
And yet it is worth reviewing where these suspicious places are: Lipkovo, Arachinovo, Studenichan, Saraj and Plasnica. What these places have in common is the absolute dominance of DUI (in Studenichan with DPA) compared to other Albanian political parties. It thus seems that it is DUI, and not the opposition parties, that had problems turning out their voters for the referendum. Far from being a political boost to DUI, as was expected, it seems that the referendum actually exposed its weakness. Thus DUI is not particularly thrilled with the prospect of early elections, but if things do take that course it might again find salvation in the arms of a coalition with SDSM.
4 – Failure of the “local” international community. The international community as it is known in Macedonia, meaning EU, NATO and their member countries, pulled all the right strings and sent all the right messages for the referendum. It became clear to everyone, if it already wasn’t, that the agreement is a necessary precondition for further integration, and that its refusal would really mean international isolation for Macedonia. The high cast of diplomats and politicians who visited the country this past month only reinforced this message.
And yet this close engagement with Macedonia bore no fruit in the referendum itself. Part of the blame certainly lays with the parties in power as noted above. But equal blame must be laid on the representatives of international institutions and countries, the so called “local” international community. These third and fourth rank diplomats, famously called “corrupted garbage” by former finance minister Stavrevski in one of the bombs, clearly do not possess the skills or character to be true representatives of an enlightened West. Deep down theirs is a mentality of elite “saloon politics”, and it is no surprise that their activities were completely out of step with the common man who eventually should have turned out to vote. More than anything the international community should rethink its approach and reevaluate its staff in Macedonia.
5 – Existential dilemma of VMRO. Finally the referendum and the whole name issue process has brought VMRO to an existential crossroad. Say what else we might of SDSM, it now has a clear cut identity as an unabashed pro-European party. The same cannot be said of VMRO. Thus far it has tried to maintain a dual identity, rhetorically as a pro-Europe party, but in reality often acting as a nationalist party thwarting all prospects of NATO and EU integration.
This approach might have been tolerated out of necessity when it was in government and given a chance to reform for the past year and a half. But that ends now. With the country in crossroads VMRO has to make a decision and stick to one identity. It can stop blocking the agreement, make nice with the international community and other parties, and try to win the next election and form a government. Or it can block it, become a pure nationalistic party, and forget about EU and NATO. In this case it will shut its doors to cooperation with other parties, and remain alone and in opposition for a long time, until it falls apart.
Thus contrary to the current perception, the referendum has pushed VMRO-DPMNE into a corner more than any other political subject. It faces an existential dilemma like no other in its history.