Sunday are the national elections, which I’m told can be quite ‘sporty’ over here….the campaigning process certainly has been. The head of security for the Peace Corps has sent out numerous e-mails telling us to avoid being near the voting places and the town centers where people will congregate. We are to avoid travel (although a few of us are meeting in Western Macedonia for a pre-approved trip) and if possible stay inside our apartments during the official announcements of the results. Apparently fire arms can be part of the celebration, and even bullets fired into the air have to come down somewhere. The area ‘wardens’ (of which I am one) are to have our assigned security phones charged and be ready at any time to call the people in our region with instructions….but let me see if I can convey some of the reasons for these precautions.
This country of about 2.2 million people has about 30 official political parties. They are only 19 years old as a democracy, and shedding some of the ‘hangover’ ways and attitudes of the former Yugoslav Republic ‘taking care’ of it’s citizens is coming slowly. Over here it’s way more important WHO you know than WHAT you know, your education level, your qualifications, etc. So which political party you belong to puts you in a defined group, and even your job may literally depend on that choice. Despite the number of registered parties, alliances and coalitions are formed to boil down to 2 main contingencies. For purposes of this post, I will call them A & B.
The president of the country is elected every 5 years but the presidency is not where the primary seat of power resides. The current president is from the A party, but fills roles primarily of figure-head-type functions. I’ve heard his role compared to the Queen of England, but these elections are not about him anyway.
Macedonian Parliament is what these elections are about. Since 2008 Party A has had 82 seats in the 120 seat congress. The Parliament elects it’s Prime Minister from among it’s members who then acts as head of party, and is in fact the primary seat of power in the country. Anything that happens has to be 2/3rds vote, so party A has enjoyed a majority reign for the past 3 years. Although elections were not due until next year, there was enough dissatisfaction among the citizenry that the Parliament ‘fired’ itself in February ordering ‘Snap’ elections on June 5th, a year earlier than expected. Campaigning is only permitted for a one-month period prior to the election. It has been intense and at times what can only be described as dirty, but I have to admit I like the limited time frame.
People leave work and head to their various party offices and work until 2 AM (especially the men!). They organize special events to highlight their party’s involvement in the community, hold rallies, make promises, etc. But what is shocking to this American is that friendships are broken, people from the opposing party are disciplined at work (including their pay docked), school kids grades are affected if their parents are from the opposite party, public events are boycotted because of the mayor’s party, people are sent out in the night with cameras to ‘spy’ on the opposing party’s activities, people urinating on opposite party banners is shown on national TV, public brawling and other such behavior is considered a by-product of the election….you get the drift.
Now in all fairness, my political affiliations have never been a significant issue in any of my employment experiences. Over here, if party B gains the majority of Parliament, everyone in civil service could change right down to the street sweepers. Already I’ve heard of school principals being replaced. I asked about trained services such as Fire and Police, and was told that probably only the chiefs would be replaced, but any new hires would be members of the majority political party. In a country where the unemployment rate is somewhere between 35-40%, people are scared.
Last week there was a dedication of a new soccer field being built by the Municipality. People in the opposite party of the Mayor boycotted the event, despite the fact that it will be good for the community, it’s considered to be ‘only a political move’.Macedonian traditional dress and 2 Priests.
Communion with beautifully baked traditional bread (it looks like a cake on the table), local wine, incense, and prayers were all a part of the dedication. Then a bottle of oil, holy water, and a variety of other symbolic gifts were put into the foundation and various dignitaries shoveled in the first of the concrete. (That’s our mayor.)
Even people who are relatively ‘neutral’ feel a great deal of pressure right now. It will be noted IF they vote, and my counterpart tells me there are ways here to discover HOW they vote. I don’t know if that’s true, but certainly there are many that believe it. They say their ballots can be photographed with cell phones or other devices, and they do not feel secure in voting anonymity. So I pray for a peaceful, safe and fair election. It makes me very appreciative of the freedoms we enjoy and often take for granted.