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17 June, 2019
 
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‘No’ vote and abstention in FYROM referendum

Turnout would confirm the legitimacy of the process

Athanasios Ellis

Athanasios Ellis

It is becoming increasingly evident that the big challenge for the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev is not only to clinch a “yes” vote in Sunday’s referendum for the name deal with Greece, but also to see a turnout that would confirm the legitimacy of the process and ensure that a potential victory is not undercut by low voter numbers.

This is no simple matter, as the electoral roll has not been updated for years and lists include significantly more voters than are actually eligible to vote, making Zaev’s battle for maximum turnout that much more uncertain.

Public opinion polls, which point to a victory for the “yes” camp, are indicative of the problem as they also point to a proportion of around 40 percent of voters who do not want to vote or who are making a conscious choice to boycott the referendum.

Zaev is trying to take advantage of the divisions in the camp of those opposed to the Prespes agreement and their differing approaches to Sunday’s referendum. He recently commented that if the “no” vote prevails by even one ballot, he will call on parliament not to ratify the deal with Greece, and then dismissed voters who have decided not to cast a ballot in a clear effort to draw a line between his opponents and lessen their aggregate significance. “Whether it succeeds will be decided by vote. Those who don’t vote don’t even count,” said the prime minister of Greece’s northern neighbor who is fighting the ultimate battle of his political career.

If the “yes” camp wins by a landslide, then everyone, “regardless of their political persuasions, will have to comply with the citizens’ directive,” he added, before concluding that “once citizens decide, it will give us politicians the only signpost we need.”

Some take issue with the wording of the referendum question, as one could interpret it as an effort at entrapment if not all-out blackmail of the electorate. At the same time, the citizens of FYROM have come under an enormous amount of pressure and been subjected to tactless interventions from the international community in recent weeks, with officials’ visits, statements, videotaped messages, letters, and even derogatory comments that are borderline threatening, like that about the choice being “between North Macedonia and North Korea.”

After all this, and going beyond the legalistic interpretation by each side of the referendum process and to what extent it is binding, in order for the assessment of the result to be right, the abstention rate needs to be factored in along with the “no” vote. That is the only fair way to know what the citizens of FYROM really want.

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