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It became clear on 19 August that more than 150,000 Macedonians had signed a petition calling for a referendum against the government's controversial plan to cut the number of administrative districts. The organizers of that referendum drive -- the nationalist NGO World Macedonian Congress (SMK) and the major ethnic Macedonian opposition parties -- thus succeeded in collecting enough signatures to force the parliament to call a referendum.
The governing coalition of the Social Democratic Union (SDSM), the Liberal Democrats (LDP), and the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), which sponsored the controversial redistricting plans, now faces a difficult time.
The coalition partners disagree as to whether the parliament must vote on the referendum with a so-called double majority in order to protect the interests of the Albanian minority. The BDI argues that a double-majority vote is justified by the provisions of the Ohrid peace agreement and the subsequent constitutional changes.
Legal experts also disagree over that question. Known as the so-called Badinter mechanism (named after the French legal expert Robert Badinter), the double-majority vote aims at protecting the ethnic minority from being outvoted by the ethnic majority. Under that system, all decisions that affect the Albanian minority must not only be approved by the majority of all members of parliament, but also by the majority of all ethnic Albanian lawmakers.
Vlado Popovski, who is a professor at Skopje University's law school and one of the authors of the Ohrid peace deal, said initiatives to call a referendum do not -- at least in theory -- require a double majority. He added, however, that the BDI's demand may be justified in that the redistricting plans are part of the decentralization plans that were agreed upon in the Ohrid peace accord. "The state Committee on Interethnic Relations must resolve this dilemma," Popovski told "Dnevnik" of 21 August, arguing that it is this committee that has to decide in which cases the Badinter mechanism must be applied.
One of Popovski's colleagues at the university, Professor Renata Deskovska, disagrees. "Neither the constitution, nor the law [on referendums] provides the basis for such demands," Deskovska said, adding that the law on referendums does not even consider the possibility for a parliamentary debate.
For SDSM Deputy Chairwoman Radmila Sekerinska, too, the Badinter mechanism does not apply to parliamentary votes on referendums. However, both Sekerinska and SDSM Deputy Chairman and Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski agree that legal experts have to explain whether a double majority is necessary for the referendum. During a press conference on 22 August, Buckovski made clear that his party opposes the referendum. He said that his party will try to convince citizens that the referendum is a waste of energy and money (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 August 2004).
Whatever the outcome of this legal dispute may be, the referendum must pass other barriers as well. Legislation specifies that more than half of the country's registered 1.7 million voters must participate in the referendum for it to be valid. And then, a majority of them (or more than 425,000) must agree to the only question -- that the country's administrative borders remain unchanged. The Social Democrats hope that it will prove difficult to convince so many voters to go to the polls.
Apart from the legal aspects of the parliamentary vote, the governing coalition must also cope with the danger of growing interethnic tensions, because only ethnic Macedonians supported the referendum drive. For BDI Chairman Ali Ahmeti, the ethnic Macedonian opposition parties supported the referendum drive not because they oppose the redistricting plans but because they oppose the 2001 Ohrid peace deal. The peace deal ended hostilities between ethnic Albanian insurgents of the National Liberation Army (UCK), who were then led by Ahmeti, and government forces. Ahmeti said that a successful referendum would mean that the peace deal is dead and that Macedonia has lost any possibility of NATO and EU membership. He added that the only way to avert a civil war is for the governing parties to succeed in declaring the referendum unsuccessful (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 and 24 August 2004).
At present, it is unclear what the legal experts will recommend, and when the overdue local elections will be held. According to various media reports, it is likely that they will be postponed once again, possibly until January. Originally slated for 17 October, in August parliament decided to hold them on 21 November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 August 2004). Whatever the date of the elections will be, Macedonia will face months of political campaigning for and against the referendum and in connection with the local elections. Other pressing problems such as the economic situation and the unemployment will have to wait.