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Macedonia: Violence Mars Local Elections

A relatively low-key campaign for local elections in Macedonia on Sunday was marred by ballot stuffing and violence in the ethnically Albanian inhabited Western areas of the country. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports.

Prague, 12 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Macedonia's municipal elections had little to do with local issues, but rather were marked by the opposition's attempt to force the ruling three-party coalition into early general elections.

Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski pledged during the campaign that if support for his coalition fell by more than 10 percentage points, he would call early parliamentary elections. But two days after the vote, the outcome remains unknown while rival parties continue to cite their own surveys, each claiming victory.

Voting on Sunday (September 10) was a no-holds-barred fight for ballots in some districts with little regard for democratic practices.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, deployed 17 election experts and 130 short-term observers to monitor the balloting. The OSCE is incensed at what occurred. The preliminary findings issued yesterday (Monday) by its election-observer mission charged that the polling fell short of international standards for democratic elections and did not fully meet Macedonia's OSCE commitment to conduct elections free from violence and to safeguard the secrecy of the ballot.

The OSCE report alleges that violent incidents were committed by individuals and supporters of political parties at polling stations in some western municipalities where the ethnic Albanian minority is concentrated. The organization's observers noted widespread instances where an individual cast ballots for family members and other examples of proxy voting. In addition, the OSCE says, it recorded what it terms "a very high number of invalid ballots."

The OSCE has called on the Macedonian government to investigate "vigorously and immediately" these and other breaches of the criminal code related to election violations.

The head of the OSCE's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights' Election Observer Mission in Macedonia, U.S. Ambassador Charles Magee, met with Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski today. They were due to discuss the issue of police responsibility for maintaining order during the elections. Magee told RFE/RL by telephone that he is confident that the run-off elections of mayoral races in 12 days (Sept 24) will go off better than Sunday's polling.

"The idea that -- as occurred in the municipality of Debar on Sunday -- organized groups can invade individual polling stations, threatening the polling officials inside with weapons, and then trash the places and destroy ballot boxes in a wholesale way, which forced the closing of all 24 polling stations in this one municipality -- this, I think, goes beyond what has happened here before."

Nevertheless, Magee says he hopes the violence doesn't constitute a threat to the stability of Macedonia or the region at large, where ballot stuffing and violence are part of the political culture.

"Well, I certainly think you can say in general terms this is a part of the folklore -- [one] can't contest that. It does seem to us, however, that some of the actions on Sunday had a violent content that really went beyond what at least we have heard about recent elections in this country, and I think that it is this violence that disturbs us the most."

Macedonian police say violence was reported at six locations on Sunday, resulting in six injuries, 20 detentions and one arrest for manslaughter. Most of it appears to have been between activists of Macedonia's two main ethnic Albanian political parties, the Democratic Party of Albanians, which is part of the ruling coalition, and the opposition Party for Democratic Prosperity. Ethnic Albanians make up about a quarter of Macedonia's population.

A Skopje-based ethnic Albanian political analyst, Kim Mehmeti, told RFE/RL that in Macedonia, as throughout the Balkans, people view elections as an opportunity to unleash their frustrations, as if they were attending spectator sports. Mehmeti says political activists tend to view their opponents as an enemy to be destroyed in whatever way possible.

"Our politicians perceive democracy as a battleground between two enemies. Most of our democrats perceive democracy as the creation of (Albanian Stalinist dictator) Enver Hoxha, for whom all instruments were acceptable to liquidate his enemies and win."

Mehmeti says that while policymakers fight for power, ordinary Macedonian Albanian voters are left with the task of electing community leaders who, he says, have no real political power. Nearly 10 years after the collapse of socialist Yugoslavia, most local authority in Macedonia remains in the hands of the interior ministry, rather than with municipal councils and mayors.

Mehmeti says the opposition, led by the Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia (SDSM) used "Albanophobia" -- fear of Albanians among Macedonian voters -- in a bid to attract votes. He notes that the SDSM warned that a vote for the coalition parties would be a vote for the hard-line deputy chairman and heir apparent of the Democratic Party of Albanians, Menduh Thaqi. Mehmeti says Thaqi's hard-line reputation irritates many Macedonian voters, who may have been swayed to cast their ballots instead for the opposition.

Opposition Party for Democratic Prosperity leader Imer Imeri blames the Democratic Party of Albanians for the violence.

"Weapons were used, funds were misused. They anticipated losing the election, so they resorted to all means in a bid to win."

But Democratic Party of Albanians leader Arben Xhaferi, a moderate, points the finger at Democratic Prosperity, adding he regrets the violent incidents.

"My party was the last to have to resort to violence because we enjoy widespread support among Albanians."

It remains for Macedonian police investigators to determine to what extent election day violence was linked to political parties or to criminal elements who merely took advantage of election day to settle their accounts.