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Macedonia: Parliamentary Elections Due Sunday

Prague, 16 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Macedonian voters go to the polls on Sunday (Oct. 18) to elect a 120-seat parliament. The main issues are whether the present coalition led by the Social Democrats will continue in office, and what the impact of the vote will be on the future of Macedonia as a multi-ethnic state.

Voters in this country of just over two million people opted for independence in September 1991 under the leadership of President Kiro Gligorov, who spent long years in Belgrade and would have preferred to have kept the former Yugoslavia together had that option been realistic.

The last Yugoslav troops left in the spring of 1992, but real possibilities to enjoy the fruits of independence began in the fall of 1995. That was when Greece agreed to end the blockade it imposed in 1993 as part of an acrimonious dispute over Macedonia's name and national symbols.

The first free vote for a legislature in the history of Macedonia took place at the end of 1990 and the second in October 1994. Most of the many political parties emerged in 1990 and are rooted in the former League of Communists of Yugoslavia, because communist Macedonia did not have a significant dissident movement. The country is multi-ethnic, and most parties target their appeal primarily to one or another ethnic group, particularly to the Macedonians, Albanians, Turks and Roma (gypsies).

The most important Macedonian parties include the Social Democratic League of Macedonia (SDSM), which is led by Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski and which has held power in coalition with various smaller parties throughout most of the decade. It currently holds office with the Socialists, whose political platform is very similar to that of the Social Democrats.

Their main competitor for the vote of ethnic Macedonians is the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE) of Ljubco Georgievski. His party claims to be the successor of the VMRO that dominated much of Macedonian politics at the beginning of the century and, like its namesake, has stressed nationalism as its main issue since it was founded in 1990.

But Georgievski's main appeal now is economic. He charges that the Social Democrats and their allies are holding back economic development through over-regulation and corruption. He told RFE/RL in Skopje recently that he will do away with both burdens, as well as cut taxes and customs rates. He also pledges to encourage foreign investment and set up three free-trade zones.

To underscore this change in approach, Georgievski has formed an electoral coalition with Vasil Tupurkovski's small Democratic Alternative, which is committed to the principles of a civil society. The DA's membership contains persons of many ethnic backgrounds including prominent Albanian intellectuals. Tupurkovski, who first made his name in Belgrade during the last years of the former Yugoslavia, is widely regarded as a possible successor to Gligorov in next year's presidential vote. Some observers suggest that Tupurkovski made his current electoral pact with Georgievski in order to secure VMRO's backing for Tupurkovski's 1999 presidential bid.

But the key to political stability are the ethnic Albanian parties. The Albanians constitute about 23 percent of the total population and live mainly in western Macedonia in areas bordering Albania. The Albanians claim that they are grossly underrepresented in state institutions and demand a greater share of political and economic power.

They also want an Albanian-language university and, perhaps, the transformation of the present unitary state into a federal one. Many Macedonians, however, suspect that such claims are really a prelude to a demand for full independence. Mutual mistrust is consequently great, ethnic tensions are often high, and political and social life are highly polarized.

The more moderate major Albanian political grouping is the Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD), which participates in Crvenkovski's coalition government. Georgievski charges that the PPD has become part of a corrupt establishment. The PPD's hard-line rival is the Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH) under Arben Xhaferi. He frequently uses militant rhetoric, but at other times takes a conciliatory tone. Few observers in Skopje are willing to predict what course he might take after the election.

Polls suggest that no party has a clear majority among either main ethnic group and that as much as 40 percent of the electorate remains undecided. This will be the first election according to rules that allow for only 85 of the 120 seats (instead of all 120, as had been the case) to be elected on the majority principle. The remaining 35 will be selected by proportional representation following a concession by the government to the smaller parties.

The two main Albanian parties, the PPD and PDSH, have formed an electoral pact to field joint candidates in some districts to ensure that competition between them does not lead to the election of a non-Albanian. A spokesman for the PDSH's Xhaferi told RFE/RL, however, that the pact will expire after election day and has no bearing on future coalition talks.

Regardless of which parties form the new government, they will face the daunting tasks of overcoming a high unemployment rate and attracting foreign investment. Many observers have long noted that prosperity is the key to peace and stability in the Balkans - demagogues and war came to the former Yugoslavia only after a decade of economic decline. The key challenge for the next government will be to boost Macedonia's standard of living so that all its citizens can feel that they have a stake in the state and its future.