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Analysis: The Fallout Of Macedonia's Failed Referendum

In the late evening hours of 7 November, Macedonian State Election Commission (DIK) spokesman Zoran Tanevski announced the preliminary results of that day's referendum to scrap the government's redistricting plans. Tanevski said that, based on 95 percent of the results, voter turnout was just over 26 percent, thus failing to meet the requirement that more than 50 percent of registered voters participate for the referendum to be valid.

The preliminary results suggest that the World Macedonian Congress (SMK) -- a nationalist lobby organization -- and the Macedonian conservative opposition parties did not succeed in convincing enough voters to participate in the referendum to veto the government's plans to reduce the number of administrative districts (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 27 August and 4, 8, and 22 October 2004).

Both the SMK and the opposition parties argued that the new territorial organization would change the ethnic composition of some districts in favor of the country's large ethnic Albanian majority, which makes up almost a quarter of the total population. The opponents of the government plans exploited the fears among many ethnic Macedonians that the new district borders are tantamount to partitioning the country along ethnic lines.

It was clear that the arguments of the SMK and the opposition parties were aimed at the Macedonian majority only. At the same time, the use of such arguments also served to raise fears among the Albanian minority that the referendum sought to hamper, if not stop, the implementation of important provisions of the 2001 Ohrid peace agreement, which granted greater rights to the Albanians.

It was thus to be expected that almost all Albanian voters followed the calls of the major ethnic Albanian parties to boycott the referendum. In the western Macedonian districts of Debar and Tetovo, which have an overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian population, voter turnout was 0.8 percent and 5.3 percent, respectively.

At the same time, voter turnout was surprisingly low in those administrative districts where the ethnic composition will change when the new Law on Territorial Organization is implemented. In Struga, for example, which was the scene of violent clashes between opponents of the new territorial organization and the police in August, voter turnout was only slightly higher (29 percent) than the country's average (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 August 2004).

Given that recent opinion polls suggested that most citizens were willing to support the referendum, it is not yet clear why the vote failed to attract voters (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 22 October 2004).

It is likely that a number of factors contributed to the referendum's failure. First of all, it was easier for the governing Social Democratic Union (SDSM), the Liberal Democrats, and the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI) to call for a boycott of the referendum than for the opposition parties to mobilize their electorate and get them to the polls.

Secondly, the governing coalition's main argument was that a successful referendum would mean a serious stumbling block for the implementation of the Ohrid peace agreement. This, they said, would lead to considerable delays for the country's ambitions to join NATO and the EU. In this, the governing coalition received strong support from the international community. Representatives of the United States, the EU, the OSCE, and NATO repeatedly called on the Macedonian public not to participate in the referendum.
The fact that more than one-quarter of all registered voters went to the polls to express their discontent with government policies should serve as a warning to the authorities.

Although opinion polls suggested that many Macedonians regarded such warnings as interference in internal affairs, the persistence of such appeals may have played a role in persuading many people not to vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 October and 1 November 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 4 October 2004). At the same time, the organizers of the referendum apparently failed to find convincing arguments to show why they were right and the international community wrong.

The impact of a third potential factor is extremely difficult to assess. On 4 November, the United States officially announced that it will recognize Macedonia under its constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia, thus giving up the practice of using the term Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), under which that country is recognized by the UN and the EU under Greek pressure (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 July and 1, 3, and 5 November 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 20 June 2003).

The reactions to the referendum results were predictable. While the governing parties and the international community welcomed them, the opposition parties tried to downplay their defeat. SMK Chairman Todor Petrov, meanwhile predictably announced that his organization will challenge the results.

The outcome of the referendum is hardly a victory for the governing coalition. The fact that more than one-quarter of all registered voters went to the polls to express their discontent with government policies should serve as a warning to the authorities and prompt them to quickly carry out reforms -- especially in the economic sector.