The local elections, which took place in several rounds in March and April, confirmed the position of the conservative Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) as the country's strongest opposition party. Its candidates won the mayoral races in 21 of the 84 administrative districts. In Skopje, the party and its allies successfully supported Trifun Kostovski, a wealthy businessman who ran as an independent candidate.
The VMRO-DPMNE thus upstaged its offshoot, the VMRO-People's Party (VMRO-NP), led by former Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, which won the mayoral elections in only three districts. The split between Georgievski and VMRO-DPMNE Chairman Nikola Gruevski -- who served as a finance minister in Georgievski's cabinet -- was mainly due to ideological differences. While Gruevski intended to turn the VMRO-DPMNE into a European-style, Christian Democratic conservative party, Georgievski favored a classic Balkan-style personalist party centered around a single strong leader, namely himself.
The long-standing differences between Georgievski and Gruevski and the subsequent founding of the VMRO-NP weakened Gruevski's position to a certain extent. But the real challenge to his leadership arose just before the local elections, when a number of prominent VMRO-DPMNE members declined to support Kostovski's candidacy for mayor of Skopje. After weeks of hesitation, Gruevski and his followers decided it was better for the party to support Kostovski than to nominate a candidate of it own. Among the possible candidates was VMRO-DPMNE Deputy Chairwoman Ganka Samoilovska-Cvetanova.
After the decision to support Kostovski, Samoilovska-Cvetanova largely stayed away from the election campaign and from meetings of the party leadership. For the governing Social Democratic Union (SDSM), her absence from the campaign trail provided a good opportunity to portray the VMRO-DPMNE as an internally divided party.
It is hard to say whether her opposition to Gruevski had any impact on the election results. But the relatively successful outcome of the local elections clearly strengthened his hand. Samoilovska-Cvetanova, for her part, decided to resign immediately after the last round of the elections.
"Over the past two years, I obviously lacked the influence as well as the power to contribute to improving certain situations." -- Samoilovska-Cvetanova
In an open letter to Gruevski, she said on 11 April that his support for Kostovski was not the only reason for her resignation. "Over the past two years, I obviously lacked the influence as well as the power to contribute to improving certain situations," "Dnevnik" quoted her as saying. She also criticized the decision-making process within the party, noting a lack of transparency and consistency. She added that she was disturbed that a diversity of opinions on some issues within the party did not become a source of strength but rather of squabbles.
The former VMRO-DPMNE deputy chairwoman also commented on the cooperation with other political parties during the election campaign, saying it was unacceptable for her to be a part of a coalition with parties she considers ideologically incompatible.
Initial reports suggested that Samoilovska-Cvetanova might remain a member of the VMRO-DPMNE's Executive Committee. However, Gruevski's followers reacted decisively. Instead of launching a minor reshuffle of the Executive Committee, the VMRO-DPMNE Central Committee decided on 12 April to dissolve the current Executive Committee altogether.
This gives Gruevski the chance to sideline not only Samoilovska-Cvetanova, but also another prominent member of the committee, Saso Kedev, who unsuccessfully ran for president in 2004. Media reports suggest that about half of the present members of the committee might be replaced.
But that was not Gruevski's only move to clean up his party. In an effort to purge the VMRO-DPMNE of members who are also members of other parties, especially of the rival VMRO-NP, Gruevski announced on 15 April a full review of the membership lists. During the six-week operation, current members of the VMRO-DPMNE will have to prove that they are not members of any other party.
When the split between the VMRO-DPMNE and the VMRO-NP occurred, leading VMRO-NP members did not give up their VMRO-DPMNE membership -- not least because they wanted to keep the parliamentary seats they had won on the VMRO-DPMNE ticket.
The VMRO-NP does not object if its members also belong to other parties, as Gjorgji Trendafilov -- a member of the parliament -- pointed out. At the same time, Trendafilov taunted Gruevski by calling on him to pay special attention to possible dual party memberships of his closest colleagues in the VMRO-DPMNE leadership.