In Europe, the events of the past years have once again proven that referendum is a two-edged sword. It can be used to obtain great legitimacy for a cause, but it is easy to fail – in the past years only, David Cameron’s or even Matteo Renzi’s example show just how much so. Zoran Zaev took a risk, nearly failed, but in the end, he triumphed. Soon, the country will be officially renamed North Macedonia, and its road to Europe will open.
The stakes were high. Had the referendum produced a clear result denoting that the majority of the people of Macedonia support changing the country’s name, and by this, resolving the dispute over it with Greece, the doors to Europe would have opened wide for Skopje. But this was not what happened. 36,87 percent of people entitled to vote voted in the referendum, answering whether or not they supported Macedonia’s EU and NATO membership by accepting the treaty concluded by Macedonia and Greece. Ninety-one point forty-eight percent of voters voted yes and only 5,64 voted no. This result could be interpreted to mean a triumph on the basis of everyone’s values.
Hristijan Mickoski, president of The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) already said the following on the evening of the vote: Macedonians have made their choice, and they want the country to maintain its name; he counted those who abstained from voting among those who voted no. Zoran Zaev – unsurprisingly – interpreted the results in the exact opposite way: beforehand, he had spoken about the likelihood of resigning if the referendum failed, but by Sunday, his discourse was re-centered around the fact that they will not take into consideration those who abstained from voting and will focus only on whether the participants voted negatively or affirmatively.
After announcing the preliminary results, he declared that the overwhelming majority of the participants voted yes, and he will therefore initiate the amendment of the constitution and the change of the country’s name; if his opposition refuses to accept the decision of the majority of the voters, and if in the parliament there will not be the required two thirds majority for the amendment of the constitution, he will initiate an early election, which could be held as soon as November.
This means that Zaev had great chances of failure by initiating a referendum, dragging with him the treaty with Greece regarding change of the name of the country. After all, the left side of the political spectrum does not have the support of two thirds majority of the Parliament, not by a long shot. Even if we count the parties of the Albanese community, they still only have 71 representatives, while 80 are needed to obtain a two thirds support. The right side had already let them know that they would not even participate in a debate. The vote, however, took an unexpected turn of events: in the end, 80 members of the 120-member parliament voted in favor of changing the country’s name, while 39 voted against the amendment of its constitution.
Eight members of the opposition simply switched the position. VMRO-DMPNE had signaled, since the very first minute, that it was against the treaty, the change of the name and the amendment of the constitution required for it, because, in their opinion, this would have meant a loss of the Macedonian identity. Coming to vote at the referendum, however, they encouraged Macedonians not to vote negatively or to boycott it, but to vote by their conscience – which might have signaled that there was a split within the party.
Nobody expected the open opposition concerning the party policy. Members of the central committee of VMRO-DPMNE immediately gathered and within hours after the vote in the parliament Mitko Yanchev, the party’s vice president, as well as several high ranking leaders who were for amending the constitution, were dismissed. Simultaneously, the process of the expulsion of the politicians from the party began. The Macedonian right – unexpectedly – is now facing an even greater crisis than they could have foreseen; not only did the cases of corruption and tapping weaken the party, but there was a split resulting from their attitude with regards to the Union.
Even if the constitutional amendments might take several months, thanks to the Macedonian vote in the parliament, the last obstacle in the way of Skopje’s Euro-Atlantic integration had been averted. While the Greek parliament still has to ratify the related Macedonian-Greek treaty concluded in June, certain experts consider this to be a mere formality, as amending the constitution in Macedonia was the hardest fight. Other analysts, however, think that an equally heated debate is to be expected in the Greek parliament as in its counterpart in Skopje, and the outcome of the vote is just as uncertain.