Ever-Changing Electoral Systems Fuelled Macedonia’s Crisis

April 19, 2016
Arbitrary changes to the electoral system, frequent dissolutions of parliament and over-powerful governing coalitions have contributed to the current political crisis in Macedonia.
 Macedonian parliament. Photo: BIRN archive

Macedonia went through four changes of election systems in the eight parliamentary elections it held between 1990 and 2014.  

The 1990 and 1994 elections were held under a majoritarian election system, in which 120 members of parliament were elected through single-member districts.

There was such disproportion between the share of votes and the share of seats in the legislature that the results were unacceptable to political parties.

At one point in 1994, the VMDRO-DPMNE decided to boycott the elections, leaving the country with practically little to no opposition in the legislature that followed.

Similar problems were encountered under the mixed election system adopted for the 1998 elections, in which 85 seats were elected under the majority system, and 35 seats were elected proportionally from a nationwide district. Observers criticised this election for the delineation of districts along ethnic lines.

The adoption of the six-district proportional model since 2002 proved to be somewhat more stable, as it has been maintained for several elections to date.

However, in the 2011 and 2014 elections, three extra seats elected using the first-past-the-post system were added to the Macedonian parliament, the Sobranie, for the representation of Macedonians living abroad.

This bumped up the number of seats in parliament from 120 to 123, raising concerns from the Venice Commission that these seats just serve as a bonus for the large parties.

These changes, which usually occurred weeks before elections and often without the backing of the opposition parties, were in most instances arbitrary intentions to empower or disenfranchise one party, group or ethnicity, and in the long run fed into the current political crisis in Macedonia.

Weak coalitions, extraordinary elections

Allocation of seats in the Parliament of Macedonia – Sobranie – 1990 to 2014 elections

The 2016 parliamentary elections in Macedonia will be the fourth consecutive extraordinary elections. This could be mainly be attributed to the adoption of the proportional election system without a threshold since 2002.

Unlike majority election systems, like the prominent examples of the United States or Britain, which generally lead to stable two-party political structures, proportional systems lead to multi-party administrations – and because they normally require the formation of governing coalitions for the establishment of the executive, they have the tendency to produce unstable political regimes.

A distinct feature of the Macedonian election system is that it has no threshold – a minimum percentage of the total votes that a party needs to qualify for seats in the legislature.

This has increased the number of parties over the years. In the 2006-2008 parliament, there were 20 political parties and four independent candidates represented in the legislature, and in 2011-2014, there were 20 parties and two independent candidates.

On one hand, the proportional system has benefited the minority and other smaller parties who have progressively gained more seats in the legislature.

The proportion of seats held by Albanian parties increased from 19 per cent in 1990 and 16 per cent in 1994 to 23 per cent in 2006 and 24 per cent in 2008. This has increased the diversity of views and political representation in the legislature.

On the other hand, the increase in the number of parties has weakened governing coalitions, and has led to frequent extraordinary elections.   

Over-powerful governing coalitions

Electoral systems can also help explain some of the ongoing political developments in Macedonia, as both the governing coalition and the opposition parties respond to the incentives that it presents.

From the perspective of the governing coalition, the VMRO-DPMNE has been the party with the largest share of seats for the fourth consecutive legislature, and has been leading the government for the last 10 years.

Similarly, since 2002, among the parties representing the Albanian community, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) has been the party with the largest share of seats for the fifth consecutive legislature.

The happy marriage between the VMRO-DPMNE and DUI in the last three legislatures enabled them to strengthen power and exploit state resources, to such advantage that neither party feels like it will lose an election anytime soon in their strongholds.

Such a prolonged period in power creates a comfort zone for political parties, and they become relaxed with corruption and underperformance.

On the other side, counter-intuitively, the opposition parties have been somewhat stagnant in the proportion of seats they have held in the parliament over the years.

The Social Democratic Union of Macedonia has not won an election since 2002. The Democratic Party of Albanians has not been in a government since the 2006-2008 legislature, and is progressively losing seats in parliament.

If the political parties feel that the election system is not treating them fairly, and that they have no chance of winning the next time around, they may feel compelled to work outside the system.

Certainly, the distribution of seats depends largely on voters’ preferences, but when governments face problems to the extent that have been seen in Macedonia and there is no change in election trends, then the election system has something to account for.