Macedonia Referendum Records Low Turnout, Both Sides Claim Victory

Amid silent boycott by the right-wing opposition, Macedonia’s referendum on the landmark ‘name’ agreement with Greece failed to meet the required turnout, but both the “yes” camp and those against the agreement declared victory.

by Sinisa Jakov Marusic

Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev announced he will forge ahead with his bid to pass the ‘name’ agreement with Greece through parliament, despite his “yes” campaign failing to draw enough voters to pass the turnout threshold required to make Sunday’s historic referendum legally valid.

Based on all ballots cast by the time polls closed at 7pm, the State Electoral Commission, DIK, reported that voter turnout was 36.84 per cent – far below the 50 per cent needed for the referendum to be deemed legally successful.

With 88.50 per cent of votes counted, the DIK announced that the results of today’s referendum are currently 91.33 per cent in favour and 5.76 per cent against the name agreement with neighbouring Greece that is hoped could end Athens’ blockade of Macedonia’s EU and NATO membership paths.

However, both the ‘Yes’ camp, led by the ruling Social Democrat government of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, and the main opposition party, VMRO DPMNE, whose leadership opted to boycott the vote last minute, declared victory.

In a public address after the polls closed, Zaev declared the vote a win for “European Macedonia”, insisting that the overwhelming ‘yes’ vote would give legitimacy for the next step of the implementation of the agreement: a constitutional change in parliament in order to adopt the newly agreed name – The Republic of North Macedonia.

Parliament can only make such major constitutional changes with the support of at least two-thirds of MPs, meaning at least 80 out of 120 MPs. With the “Yes” camp currently holding 71 seats, they need to win over support of nine others.

After the vote, Zaev adamantly stated that no better deal can be reached with Greece and “there is no alternative” to changing the constitution. If this is not achieved, “we [the Social Democrats] will need to use the other democratic tool at our disposal and that means early general elections immediately!” Zaev said.

He added bluntly: “Macedonia will become an EU and NATO member!”

Under the ‘name’ deal signed with Greece this summer, Macedonia agreed to change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia in exchange for Greece lifting its long-standing veto on Macedonia’s NATO and EU integration.

While the referendum is officially only “consultative” in the deal, the low turnout will make it difficult for the ruling Democrats to convince opposition MPs to support the constitutional changes.

In the headquarters of the main opposition right-wing VMRO DPMNE party, which formally did not have any campaign for the referendum, but which predominantly leaned towards a silent boycott, a similar celebratory mood was felt on Sunday evening.

VMRO DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski declared that the referendum had failed and exposed the wrong policies of the government.

“The fact is that the name agreement did not get the green light, but a stop [sign] from the people,” he told his supporters once the polls closed. “The people who voted against the agreement and those who chose through abstention to show what they think, have sent the loudest message – [that] this is Macedonia!”

However, Mickoski failed to clearly say whether he accepts his rival’s open call for early general elections, which Zaev threatened if VMRO DPMNE declines to support the ‘name’ deal in parliament.

Meanwhile, the proponents of the boycott, a semi-formal group of small non-parliamentary parties and right-wing movements, also celebrated the failure of the referendum. Around 1,000 of them gathered jubilantly in front of the parliament building on Sunday evening to toast the outcome.

The first official reaction from the international community came from EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn.

“I congratulate those citizens who voted in today’s consultative referendum and made use of their democratic freedoms. With the very significant “yes” vote, there is broad support to the Prespa Agreement and to the country’s Euro-Atlantic path,” Hahn tweeted.

He added: “I now expect all political leaders to respect this decision and take it forward with utmost responsibility and unity across party lines, in the interest of the country.”

Sunday’s vote was monitored by a record number of almost 12,000 domestic monitors and almost 500 accredited international monitors, 197 from the OSCE/ODIHR mission.

The first assessments by domestic monitors speak of a relatively quiet day marked by predominantly democratic voting but also with a series of small irregularites, mostly involving unauthorised photographing of voters near the polling stations and directing insults at them.

Macedonia’s Interior Ministry reported that during the voting they have apprehended one person who had threatened and insulting voters.

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