Macedonia's Social Democrats won an unexpectedly large share of the vote in municipal elections that essentially became a referendum on the country's future. That future, at least based on expectations recorded at the local level on October 15, is a European one.
The ruling Social Democratic Union (SDSM) party headed by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev staved off a late run by its biggest rival, Nikola Gruevski's nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party, which seemed on the eve of the vote to be poised for a strong showing.
Gruevski was countering the Brussels-leaning vision of the SDSM by offering a return to a supposedly better past. But in the end it was Zaev who won the day, in large part due to the support of urban voters who endorsed the sitting government's pro-Western agenda.
It marked another setback for the VMRO-DPMNE, which in December 2016's parliamentary elections failed to win enough seats to form the government for the first time in a decade.
During the campaign, Zaev promised that Macedonia would become the 30th member of NATO, and would push for negotiations to join the European Union. It has been a candidate for accession to the EU since 2005, but the goal is to enter accession negotiations despite the bloc's vow not to expand in the near future.
The Social Democrats won a majority in almost 50 of a total of 81 municipalities, including the capital, Skopje. Their coalition partner, the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), won in 12 municipalities. By contrast, Gruevski's party -- which dominated all levels of government for more than a decade and is still the biggest party in parliament -- triumphed in only nine municipalities.
Zaev sent a message to the newly elected mayors that the era of "local sheriffs" running their own show had ended, and that the government would expect them to act with integrity.
"I appeal for honesty, dedication, and responsibility. I demand a responsible local and central government," Zaev said. "I feel great joy, but the weight of responsibility is equally great."
Andrea Stojkovski tweeted that the election results would put the wind back in the sail of democratic reforms -- which, along with hammering out a solution with Greece on its long-contentious name issue, are required of Macedonia if it hopes to move forward on its road to NATO membership -- but also brought a mountain of obligations.
Marko Trosanovski of the Macedonian Institute for Democracy tries to explain the significance of the Social Democrats winning at the local level. "In the parliamentary elections people calculated that it was safer to vote for those already in power, fearing revenge and some kind of sanction from the then-ruling VMRO-DPMNE."
However, the narrow and against-all-odds win by Zaev's Social Democrats in December changed the playing field. "Our research in the institute shows that voters not only in Macedonia but in other Balkan countries have the tendency to side with winners," Troshanovski told RFE/RL in Skopje.
Political analyst Alaydin Demiri believes the message of the local elections is clear, and that the Social Democrats will feel emboldened enough to call new parliamentary elections in the spring.
"It should not be forgotten that the real winner of last year's parliamentary elections was VMRO-DPMNE [as the largest single party, despite being unable to form a government], and that the ruling SDSM's hold on power is precarious and requires a more resounding electoral victory," Demiri says.
Troshanovski agrees that early parliamentary elections are now more likely.
The VMRO-DPMNE, meanwhile, has questioned the validity of the local elections, which saw it lose control of a host of municipalities. Party leader and former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski said the October 15 vote "took place in an undemocratic atmosphere and in unfair conditions."
It has been said that failure is always an orphan, while victory has many fathers.
One of the "fathers" in this case is surely former Macedonian security official Gjorgi Lazarevski, one of three agents who leaked information about the illegal wiretapping of ordinary citizens carried out without warrants at the order of Gruevski when he was prime minister.
Macedonia entered a full-blown crisis in 2015 after opposition parties accused Gruevski and his counterintelligence chief of masterminding the wiretapping of more than 20,000 people. It dissipated only after the European Union mediated a deal that called for early elections and the appointment of a special prosecutor to probe the content of the wiretaps.
Lazarevski, who was arrested in January 2015, described how difficult it had been to give his testimony in the presence of a former colleague, with a prosecutor in the next room.
"I told the truth to two institutions, but instead of giving me the status of a whistle-blower, I was charged with espionage," he told the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), recounting the dramatic events that had upended the life of his family, and the whole country as a whole.
Lazarevski and his colleagues spent 11 months in prison before the Special Prosecutor's Office dropped the charges against them. At the same time, prosecutors opened a new investigation into the former interior minister under the Zaev government, as well as the intelligence chief and his closest associates.
Zaev took office in May, nearly six months after the December elections, ending a two-year political crisis over a wiretapping scandal that brought down the previous government. The delay was caused by obstacles created by President Gjorge Ivanov, who supported Gruevski even when he did not have legal means to form a government.
The Macedonian columnist Zvezdan Georgievski predicts the start of a new era, and sees the outcome of the local elections as an unequivocal repudiation of the criminality and corruption that plagued former Prime Minister Gruevski's government.
Now, as the initial euphoria over the unexpectedly decisive victory wanes, Zaev and his party face the difficult task of delivering on the European promise, which will require securing an independent judiciary, nurturing a free press, and perhaps the hardest of all -- negotiations with Greece over the country's disputed name.