34th Congress Session – Chamber of Local Authorities
28 March 2018, Strasbourg

Observation of municipal elections in “The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (15 October 2017)

Speaking notes – Karim VAN OVERMEIRE (Belgium, NR)

Dear colleagues,

It is my pleasure to present to you today the findings of the Congress’ Election Observation Mission carried out from from 11 to 16 October 2017 in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. I headed a delegation including 13 observers from 12 Council of Europe member States.

I would like to highlight that this mission was carried out in close cooperation with the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights – ODIHR -  and was concluded by a joint press conference where preliminary findings were presented to the local media after the Election Day. This allowed the Congress to receive more coverage by the media and is in line with our  overall policy of cooperation in the field of election observation.

At the outset, it is important to know that a substantive change of the overall political situation occured in the country during the months preceeding these municipal elections.

You may remember that a serious political crisis had started after the Parliamentary and Presidential elections of 2014, when information was released by the opposition, according to which the then-Prime Minister Nikola GRUEVSKI illegally wiretapped conversations of about 20,000 people. After two years of tension, early Parliamentary elections were held in December 2016 and led to a change in government. Zoran ZAEV, the head of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, now leads a government supported by several Albanian parties.

The ongoing political crisis and the absence of a government over several months had a direct impact on the date of local elections, which were initially due to be held already in May of last year.

According to many of our interlocutors – in particular, journalists and stakeholders from the civil society – this change of the government had positive consequences on the overall political environment and the election campaign. The media representatives we met highlighted that the media coverage was more balanced and freedom of the press did improve, compared to previous elections.  An indication of the overall positive atmosphere in which the vote took place is the turnout: about 60 percent of voters actually cast a ballot on Electon Day, showing that the expectations from the electorate were high in these elections.

Despite these improvements, it needs to be said that the general atmosphere in the country is still characterised by deep divison and polarisation along ethnic and political lines. An example of such division is the debate around the Law that extends the official use of the Albanian language to the whole country. The draft Law was presented to the Parliament before the local elections but the debate was postponed, the opposition claiming that such Law would jeopardise the country’s national interests.

Speaking of our assessment of the Election Day, six Congress’ teams observed the voting procedures in some hundred polling stations throughout the country and we are able to conclude that, by and large, the elections were well-organisedand and held in an orderly and calm atmosphere, without major incidents.

With regard to potential improvements, which are detailed in the draft Recommendation which I am presenting today (and there is always room for improvements – irrespective of the country in which elections are observed), they are mostly related to more transparency in the electoral process.

First of all, regarding the election administration:

-       At the level of polling stations, politically sponsored members of Electoral Boards are currently nominated on the basis of the power situation in the national Parliament, which may not reflect the majority situation in the given municipality. This was flagged to the Congress Delegation as a possible issue with regard to political impartiality.

-       At higher level, the State Election Commission lacked genuine transparency in decision-making. In addition, a last-minute change of the Electoral Code led to a change to the composition of the SEC which is at odds with international good practice.

-       In general, systematic training of the electoral staff should remain high on the agenda in order to ensure the coherent implementation of electoral rules, notably with regard to the proper sealing of ballot boxes, the systematic signing of voters’ lists or prescribed counting procedures.

Another issue is the lack of effective complaint and appeal procedures in the Electoral Code. This is combined with an overall lack of trust in the ability of the election administration and the courts to handle election-related cases impartially.

Also, more transparency is needed with regard to the separation of State and party interests, in order to provide a level playing field for all contestants. This is why we ask for further measures to prevent the misuse of administrative resources during electoral processes.

The accuracy of the voters’ lists remains to be a highly controversial issue. In order to prevent fraudulent manipulations, we recommend further sustainable and transparent up-date of the voters' lists and to ensure a closer link between the voters and the elected representatives of a specific municipality. We recognise that the law already provides for a domicile requirement in municipal elections and is therefore generally in line with Congress recommendations, which suggests that only voters permanently residing in a specific municipality should be entitled to vote at the local level.

In conclusion, the delegation was informed that a number of municipalities had financial difficulties, even to the point that their accounts were blocked by courts due to unpaid debts. They had to receive funding from the State budget in order to be able to conduct the local elections. The sustainability and financial independence of municipalities is of particular concern to the Congress and should be addressed by the Macedonian authorities as a priority issue – in the interest of further progress of grassroots’ democracy, but also with regard to the capacity of municipalities to organise local elections in line with international standards.

Thank you for your attention.