Author: Joana Treneska
On October 19 of 2022, drivers of private bus companies collectively refused to clock in early to start their scheduled bus routes: A first-ever since the establishment of the public transport system of Skopje in 1948. Regular users of public transport were left to find alternative ways to commute. Many could not have predicted that this was the beginning of a lengthy traffic gridlock caused by a political system that was one party dispute away from developing a political gridlock of its own. The traffic chaos presented yet another lesson for the citizens that regardless of how politically inactive you are or strive to be, politics can and will enter your homes, and your workplace, and even change your commute. It further serves as an additional piece of evidence for the academic community of how easy it is for a young democracy to lose the battle to a government gridlock due to multiple parties taking part in governing the country on both the local and the central levels.
Bus Fleet and City Hall Debacle
The drivers who provide private bus services in Skopje (around a third of the city’s bus fleet), stopped working and additionally paralyzed the main boulevards as a sign of protest. The motif behind their blockage was the claim that the City of Skopje owes them payments of 1.5 million euros for fuel (Marusic, 2022). The mayor of the Capital, Danela Arsovska, denied the accusations. As a response to their refusal to provide services, she terminated their contracts and informed the public that she would start a procedure to look for new public-private partnerships of this nature. The drivers’ response was to place the buses in the middle of multiple main streets, causing traffic chaos all around the city. Arsovska refused to succumb to the pressure and stated that such altercations should be addressed in a court of law by filing a lawsuit, rather than out on the streets (Kostov, 2022). Meanwhile, people could not go to work, students missed their first, if not all periods and as the most atrocious byproduct, ambulances couldn’t reach or leave hospitals in time. The inconvenience and distress that this issue imposed on citizens was barely addressed by any of the responsible parties. The matter boiled down to pointing fingers and avoiding responsibility.
Eventually, after nearly two months of traffic chaos, the bus drivers decided to temporarily remove the buses from blocking the boulevards temporarily. While Arsovska struggled to find new private bus companies to conduct business with, Prime Minister Kovachevski called for open discussions, promised to meet with the bus drivers, and thanked them for voluntarily freeing the main boulevard (Veljanovska – Najdeska, 2022).
A landscape of political gridlock
North Macedonia is a parliamentary democracy with a multi-party system ever since its peaceful secession from Former Yugoslavia in 1991 (Irwin, 1989). A system that prevents centralization of power and provides a proportionate representation of multiple groups and sub-groups in the parliament understandably has universal appeal for newly formed democratic systems with divided societies. Experts consider it the proper recipe for countries who are transitioning to an open-market democracy (Cianetti 2019, Ljiphart 1991, McGann 2006). Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, former socialist countries have massively opted for parliamentary democracy (Huntington, 1991). North Macedonia holds parliamentary and local elections every four years, as well as presidential elections every five years.
Although the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDUM) has been in power since 2016, the main oppositional conservative party VMRO-DPMNE celebrated its comeback by massively winning mayor and council seats during the local elections in 2021. This resulted in having the central and local governments run by two opposing parties. The opposition party publicly endorsed Danela Arsovska as a candidate for the mayor of the capital city. Arsovska was a political outsider who used to work in the business sector, yet won by a landslide of 28,000 votes against the Social Democrats’ incumbent Petre Shilegov. Although Arsovska was an independent candidate on paper, it was evident that she owed some, if not all of her victory to VMRO-DPMNE and its massive constituency (Marusic, 2022).
What many could not have predicted was the short lifespan of the partnership between Arsovska and the VMRO-DPMNE. In less than two years as a mayor, Arsovska hired, then dismissed over 15 managers of public enterprises in Skopje, due to allegations of corruption or incompetence (Petrovska, 2023). Most of the managers derived from the high ranks of VMRO-DPMNE. Some even resigned out of protest. VMRO-DPMNE openly admitted to having made the mistake of providing public support for her candidacy. They made a handful of accusations that Arosvska is incompetent, mentally unfit to govern, secretly collaborated with the Social Democrats, and called for her resignation. The party president stated that their expectations were not met and “they simply must part ways with Arsovska” (Kalinski, 2022). Some political analysts such as Sefer Selimi named the fiasco “the biggest failure of a political bargain” (Kalinski, 2022).
Navigating the gridlock
Private enterprises conducting business with public institutions is nothing new in contemporary political settings. Neither is getting into conflicts over debts and payments between the two sides. The issue occurs when the country at hand is a young democracy in which multiple parties have taken over different branches of the central and local government. The mechanism designed to prevent the centralization of power is simultaneously contributing to inefficiency, obstruction, and pointing fingers (Bäck and Carroll, 2018).
Local governments have always had jurisdiction over their public transport system. However, the central government also holds the legal right to revoke such privilege and take control over failing projects or whole sectors. The central government can also legally cover the debts of local governments and has developed a habit of doing so over the years for struggling municipalities, but this was not the case for the capital. Even at the peak of the transport chaos in Skopje and the utter aggravation expressed by the citizens, multiple central government institutions did not execute such rights. Namely, the Vice Minister for Economic Affairs stated that “revoking the jurisdiction that the city has over its public transport would set us 20 years back in terms of government decentralization” (Sulejman, 2022). The Minister for Local Government acknowledged that the government can remove the bus blockades by force, which was followed by the statement that he does not think such methods should be executed yet (Marusic, 2022). According to the Law of Public Assemblies, The Ministry of Internal Affairs, i.e. the police, run at present by the Social Democrats, has the legal right to stop a protest under several circumstances. Some of them are: If the health and safety of the citizens have been endangered, as well as the law and order of the city, if the protest counts less than 20 people, and if the state has signed international agreements that stipulate an obligation for the smooth flow of traffic. It was fairly easy to find some of these conditions being broken during the many days of protest and traffic havoc. However, all of the relevant ministries run by the central Social Democrats refused to step in, and decided to wait and see.
In an ideal world, the reluctant response by most sides involved would reflect the public officials’ and parties’ determination to stick to democratic and legal norms, rather than bending them or searching for loopholes and quick fixes, something that failing democracies tend to practice (Levistsky and Ziblatt, 2021). In reality, the background behind the persistent refusal to compromise or meddle in the issue was not principles, but the party and political setting. Arsovska was at the frontline of criticism for the chaos due to her role as a mayor. VMRO-DPMNE was under scrutiny for failing to collaborate with the mayor they endorsed and for choosing to endorse someone so reluctant to collaborate in the first place. The ministries controlled by the Social Democrats, who own the jurisdiction to provide alternative solutions, refused to clean up the mess their opponents had created. Furthermore, VMRO-DPMNE refused to use their platform and call for compromise or pay the debt on behalf of the City Council, which it dominated, all in the hopes of sinking Arsovska’s approval ratings, which would urge her to resign. Finally, the call for discussions and consensus by the Prime Minister could have arrived many traffic jams and canceled bus routes earlier.
The incentive to serve the public interest does not hold priority when the opponents primarily responsible for the issue are losing supporters by the hour due to their incompetence to provide a functional public transport system. Buying some time for the voters’ rage towards the opponent to bottle up is simply more politically advantageous than taking the technocratic road and leaving politics at the front door. Solving the issue promptly would be a short-lived good initiative on anyone’s part. In a matter of days, the locals would barely remember who created the chaos, and who solved it and would seldom give credit where credit is due. However, leaving it to marinate and pile up would leave long-lasting consequences for the ones responsible, albeit at the cost of the citizens’ nerves and sometimes jobs.
In the case of North Macedonia, it took very little for the streets to be blocked and for all sides to start pointing fingers. Paradoxically, the term political gridlock is derived from the term traffic gridlock. The latter is defined as a traffic jam in which a grid of intersecting streets is congested to the extent that no vehicular movement is possible, while the former is a situation in which no political action can be taken one way or the other due to a lack of consensus or control by different parties. What they both have in common is the lack of movement and the City of Skopje. Hopefully, this is a lesson for all parties of North Macedonia to avoid gridlocks of any kind in the future, rather than endorsing them.
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Joana Treneska has attained her Master’s degree in political science at the Paris Lodron University of Salzburg, with a thesis on the topic of the normative role of the EU and how it is reflected in trade agreements with third parties. She is currently a researcher in a non-profit organization on the topic of youth and education policies and a member of the EU Research Committee within the International Association of Political Science Students.