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Low turnout mars Macedonian referendum, so what's next?

  • Elis Gjevori
  • 1 Oct 2018

Efforts to change the name of the Balkan state now enters crisis mode as voters failed to turn out in a blow for Western leaders who campaigned for a "yes" vote.

Local reports suggest turnout in the first four hours may be as low as 8 percent. ( AP )

A low turnout marred the Macedonia referendum on Sunday as the country went to the polls to decide whether it wants to change its name to “North Macedonia” to end a long-running dispute with Greece.

Macedonia's electoral commission announced that the turnout stood at 36 percent in which 652,000 people voted, comfortably below the necessary threshold of 903,000 votes needed for the referendum to succeed.

Therefore, the referendum failed, even as the "yes" camp won more than 91 percent of the vote.

In the lead up to the referendum, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, NATO leader Jens Stoltenberg, former US Vice President Joe Biden and former President George W. Bush were among some of the many foreign dignitaries who either visited or spoke in favour of a "yes" vote.

The low turnout will no doubt be considered a hit to Macedonia’s ambition to join the EU and NATO – an issue that was an integral part of the question asked in the referendum vote – as "yes" campaigners linked EU and NATO membership directly with the name change. 

Local journalist and former advisor to the current Macedonian president, Cvetin Chilimanov, spoke to TRT World, calling the result “a spectacular defeat of Zoran Zaev,” the Macedonian prime minister.

So the question is, what happens next? 

Greece is unlikely to renegotiate the deal given that even the current name deal was massively unpopular.

The European Union has invested a considerable amount of political capital in favour of the deal and may be tempted to do what it has done in the past, which is to ignore it or ask people to vote again.

This morning the Macedonian people had their answer.

European Union leaders encouraged Macedonia, saying it “must press on,” while the US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert expressed continued support for the agreement.

For the boycott movement, the result will be a vindication of their position and will no doubt give them a much-needed boost of confidence.

“The exceptionally low turnout may help opposition representatives hold firm” when the issue comes to parliament, said Cvetin Chilimanov, a vocal critic of the deal. 

The historic referendum, even if it had passed the necessary threshold, was consultative and not legally binding.

Political analyst Andreja Bogdanovski told TRT World that “the government now takes full ownership, responsibility and risks associated” in what to do next.

Macedonians will now go through a “period of uncertainty where tight deadlines need to be met in order for the agreement to survive,” Bogdanovski added.

The referendum, far from providing a break with the past, will now stoke additional political uncertainty in the landlocked Balkan country. 

Early elections?

Zoran Zaev, the Macedonian prime minister, will now seek to take the issue to parliament where he will need a two-thirds majority to implement the constitutional changes necessary for the deal to survive.

As it stands, the government is eight seats shy of that majority.

The vote will now embolden the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party.  

The government of Zoran Zaev will need the help of VMRO-DPMNE, the only party that could give it the necessary votes, to accomplish the constitutional change. However, the VMRO-DPMNE position until now has been firmly against the agreement.

All eyes will be on Christian Mickoski, the VMRO leader who has steered his party against the referendum.

"He now represents the boycott movement, and any future moves need to run through him," Cvetin Chilimanov added.

As the vote heads to parliament, Misha Popovikj, a researcher working at the Institute for Democracy “Societas Civilis” Skopje, said, “it's unknown how many MPs will be in favour and what sort of pressure they'll face.”

The acrimony and the polarisation produced by the referendum moving into parliament will likely continue.

According to Andreja Bogdanovski, in the event of a “failed attempt for constitutional changes, there will be early elections as soon as November” – a step that will likely prolong regional uncertainty.

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