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Voting Problems in Roma, Albanian Villages Worry EU in Macedonia’­s Elections

March 2, 2005

(Balkanalysis.com Research Service)- Earlier this week, a senior European official in Skopje disclosed for Balkanalysis.com that the European Union is keeping a close eye on specific places where the potential for voting irregularities is feared to be highest, in the run-up to Macedonia’s March 13th local elections.

While the EU continues to make press releases about its proactive efforts and engagement with the various political parties, this information on anticipated “hot spots” will probably not be publicized, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.Characterizing the level of cooperation between the EU and the local parties as “very successful,” the official attested that nevertheless there are still concerns about specific cases with the potential for violence and/or voting fraud.

While a recent IWPR report claimed the internationals are mostly concerned with the possibility of violence between the Albanian voting blocs, the official pointed out that “when we talk about voting problems, we’re not just talking about shootouts.”

In fact, potential trouble might actually instead involve the smaller minorities, such as the Roma. “It’s about time they [the media] started paying attention to them,” said the official.

Citing precedents of voting fraud in earlier elections in Roma communities and “an extremely low level of voter education,” the official voiced concerns that chances for manipulation run high in their areas. “Remember, [the Roma] are also the poorest of the poor. People could be tempted to ‘use’ their votes for them. And they are also vulnerable to intimidation.”

Tetovo, Macedonia’s largest Albanian-majority city, is sure to be fiercely contested by the Albanian DUI and rivals DPA and PDP. Combining as it does both prestige and power, the position of mayor of Tetovo is a key race for Albanian parties. However, the official contradicted recent reports that claim the elections there will be marred by violence and irregularities.

“Since the [Albanian] parties know they are going to be watched so closely, and since there will be so many international observers, my feeling is that at least in the city itself, Tetovo’s elections will be uneventful… so on election day, Suto Orizare [Skopje’s main Roma slum] may just be the place to be.”

The potential for irregularities is not just limited to poor minorities, however, said the official, pointing out cities that will be contested between Macedonian parties such as Prilep, Kocani and Bitola. All municipalities will be getting increased competencies with these elections, “turning them in effect into mini-municipalities.” This raises the stakes – and thus the motivation to cheat – tremendously.

That said, the official sought to remind that violence is by no means the only fear the international community has: “for example, in some of the Albanian villages the risk of irregularities such as ballot stuffing is high… everyone will turn out to vote, including the dead, the disappeared and the economic migrants living in other countries. 3 years from now, someone may find out that they voted in 2005.”

Interestingly enough, while such phenomena might not end up in violence, in some cases this fact arises from the fear of violence.

“Remember, in these village, the Pater Familias might come in to the polling station and announce he’s here to cast the votes for his whole family. Of course there will be no violence – who’s going to tell him no? Likewise, if the village chief has decided [to support a certain party], who is going to oppose him?”

Among its other efforts to minimize the potential for electoral irregularities, the EU has asked all the parties to sign a code of conduct, which charts out both behavior to avoid and also ways to protect their constituents’ rights. One idea to help the latter goal is to have legal experts on hand at each polling station.

“We told them [the parties] that we expect them to come forward with sustained claims, in the case of irregularities. To expedite this, they need to have a team of legal experts on hand,” said the official.

When asked whether small minorities would have the capacity for such expenditures, the official reminded that since such groups are small and often have a certain population density, they should be able to field a sufficient legal presence.

Another group considered to be vulnerable is the Turkish minority. In Vrapciste, where the Turkish NDP party plans to boycott, the EU hopes that the locals decide to look after themselves regardless: “if the Turks don’t go out [to vote], will they still watch the lists to make sure they don’t get manipulated? If not, we could end up with cases of, ‘well, Mr. Mehmet, looks likes you voted,’ when in actual fact, he hadn’t.”

Among the other places singled out for attention, “especially if it goes to a second round [on March 27th],” were the Albanian municipalities of Lipkovo and Aracinovo, as well as the newly-formed mixed municipality of Mavrovo-Rostusa, all having a history of election-time mischief.

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