October 01, 2018
After the referendum, more turmoil in Macedonia
Democracy is for those who turn up. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev put a brave face on after the referendum vote yesterday, where only 36.6% of the population turned up to vote on the so-called Prespes agreement with Greece to change the country's name and join the EU and Nato. Under the deal, the former Yugoslav republic would amend its name to North Macedonia and its constitution to exclude any territorial claims on the Greek province of Macedonia, while Greece would drop its objections to the country joining the EU and Nato. Opposition parties and the president had called on citizens to boycott the vote. This seems to have had its effect. But those who did show up yesterday overwhelmingly voted for the agreement: With 80% of the votes counted, the yes vote got a whopping majority of 91.2%.
Does low participation mean the referendum result is invalid? On the one hand, the constitution requires a minimum turnout of 50% of eligible voters for validation. On the other, Zaev's government insisted that the referendum was consultative anyway.
The final decision is with parliament, where the agreement has to be backed by a two thirds majority in next week's vote. Zaev called on parliament yesterday to ratify. But how? His Social Democratic Union only has 49 seats in the 120-seat assembly, while the centre-right has 51. He would need some votes from the opposition party to pass the deal. But it has already declared the agreement dead, arguing that the people would like to join the EU and Nato but not with this deal. It is a way of saying no.
What happens if parliament rejects the deal as well? If lawmakers fail to support it, the country will go to elections, Zaev has promised. These would then be considered as a second referendum.
Could the referendum stir up nationalist sentiment? The referendum was the most important historic choice since the independence declaration in 1991. It was held against the backdrop of polarisation and in highly emotional debates about national identity. Russia reportedly stepped up clandestine efforts to prevent Macedonia’s embrace of the west, working in unison with hardcore nationalists to get people to boycott the vote. If the turmoil continues, so will the polarisation about Macedonia's identity.
What does the vote mean for Greece? Basically it buys Athens time to weather the political fallout. The Greek government won't have to present the agreement to parliament in January. The expected split of the government coalition would be delayed. New Democracy's plan to table a censure motion that would trigger new elections before the Prespes vote would turn out to be an empty threat. This does not mean that a political storm won't happen. ToVima writes that the coalition split has become unavoidable and will occur even if the time frame is now a different one.