North Macedonia is a parliamentary republic. A left-leaning government has calmed tensions in the wake of a 2017 parliamentary crisis that paralyzed normal political activity. North Macedonia continues to struggle with corruption, and while the media and civil society participate in vigorous public discourse, journalists and activists face pressure and intimidation.
- July’s parliamentary elections produced a virtual tie, with the governing Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) taking 35.89 percent of the vote, and the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization–Democratic Party for Macedonian Unity (VMRO–DPMNE) winning 34.57 percent. The polls were competitive, credible, and took place without major incident, and the SDSM formed a governing coalition with smaller parties shortly thereafter.
- A new public prosecutor law was approved in February, following some controversy about last-minute changes to the measure’s provisions. The law was part of an ongoing reform drive aimed at open accession talks with the European Union (EU).
- In October, the EU signaled that it was prepared to start accession negotiations before the end of the year. In November, though, the Bulgarian government blocked the start of talks.
- Authorities enacted various measures restricting movement and other activities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and a state of emergency was in place at year’s end. Violators could be fined, but were not subject to violence or other forms of disproportionate enforcement. According to the country’s public health office, 75,500 COVID-19 cases had been confirmed by mid-December.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||3.003 4.004|
The president is elected to as many as two five-year terms through a direct popular vote. President Stevo Pendarovski of the SDSM won his first term in May 2019, taking 51.7 percent of the vote against opponent Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova’s 44.8 percent. Voter turnout was 46.7 percent—a low figure, but one consistent with recent North Macedonian elections. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) sent a monitoring mission that determined that the election was free and credible, despite some technical challenges involving voter rolls and technological infrastructure, among other issues.
The unicameral Assembly elects the prime minister, who is head of government and holds most executive power. Parliamentary elections held in July 2020 resulted in a virtual tie, with the SDSM barely ahead of the VMRO–DPMNE. The SDSM was able to easily form a coalition government with smaller left-wing and ethnic minority parties. The VMRO–DPMNE did not significantly obstruct the process as in years prior, and Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s new cabinet was approved by the end of August.
Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 due to the orderly formation and approval of a government after July’s parliamentary elections.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||3.003 4.004|
Members of the 120-seat Assembly are elected by proportional representation to four-year terms.
The July 2020 polls showed improvement from previous years, with instances of vote-buying, intimidation, and other misconduct reported less frequently. The elections were originally scheduled for November 2020; moved up to April 2020 after the EU in October 2019 refused to green light accession talks with Skopje; and finally pushed back to July due to public health–related concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The OSCE monitoring mission observing the elections concluded that they were well-managed and free, but criticized last-minute changes to the electoral framework by the government. The SDSM won 35.89 percent of the vote and 46 seats, while the VMRO–DPMNE won 34.57 percent and 44 seats, with the remainder divided among smaller parties.
Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because the parliamentary elections saw fewer instances of vote-buying, voter intimidation, and other acts of misconduct compared to previous polls.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||3.003 4.004|
Election laws have deficiencies, though the overall accessibility of election results and reporting by the State Election Commission has improved since 2019. Ambiguities in election laws that have yet to be addressed include regulations governing the registration of candidates, and resolution mechanisms for election-related disputes. Additionally, OSCE observers, in both 2019 and 2020, expressed concerns about inaccuracies in the electoral roll.
In September 2018, the government held a controversial referendum to approve the Prespa Agreement, signed with Greece in June 2018, to change the country’s name to North Macedonia. Voter turnout was only 37 percent, below the 50 percent required for the results to count—though 90 percent of participants voted in favor of the change. OSCE observers assessed the referendum results as credible, but said content had been inadequately explained to the public, and the election commission lacked transparency in carrying out the poll. Analysts expressed concern about a social media disinformation campaign, which reportedly originated in Russia, urging Macedonians to boycott the vote.
In January 2019, the government ratified the Prespa Agreement, despite inadequate voter turnout for the referendum, and the country’s name change, from Macedonia to North Macedonia, was confirmed by parliament.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||3.003 4.004|
While the constitution protects the right to establish and join political parties, vast patronage networks hamper democratic competition. Violence occurred in parliament in 2017 in response to the election of an SDSM-backed parliament speaker. Around 100 people were injured in the altercation. Tensions between the parties have decreased since 2018. Both the main center-left and center-right blocs lost votes in the 2020 parliamentary elections to ethnic Albanian minority parties, and a far-left party, Levica, which won two seats and entered the parliament for the first time.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||3.003 4.004|
In 2017, power rotated from the right-wing nationalist party, the VMRO–DPMNE—which had governed since 2006—to the left-leaning SDSM, which had governed through much of the 1990s and early 2000s. Before taking power in 2017, SDSM had boycotted parliament on several occasions over claims of electoral fraud, as well as following a scandal in which the administration of former prime minister Nikola Gruevski allegedly directed the secret service to operate a massive wiretapping and surveillance program. However, competitive elections in 2019 and 2020 and the credible 2018 referendum reflected improvements in the North Macedonian electoral system and greater ability of opposition parties to campaign freely and win support through elections.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||2.002 4.004|
While voters are largely free to make political decisions, reports of intimidation and vote buying remain common. Patronage networks remain influential in political life and can influence political outcomes.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3.003 4.004|
Ethnic Albanians make up about 25 percent of the population, and a political party representing Albanians has sat in each ruling coalition. Certain types of legislation must pass with a majority of legislators from both major ethnic groups (Albanians and Macedonians). In March 2018, the SDSM-led government passed a new language law extending the official use of Albanian to all state-level institutions, including the parliament.
North Macedonia’s Romany community remains politically marginalized. The country’s Turkish, Serbian, and Bosnian minorities are comparatively well integrated.
Despite the introduction of parity laws and joint initiatives on behalf of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and electoral authorities, societal attitudes discourage women from participating in politics. Some women are disenfranchised through the practice of family voting. Despite these challenges, the first woman defense minister was appointed in 2017. Women currently make up 47 percent of parliament.
Small LGBT+ advocacy groups are politically active, but LGBT+ people have little representation in politics.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||3.003 4.004|
For much of 2017, parliament did not function effectively due to VMRO–DPMNE attempts to prevent the formation of an SDSM-led government, as well as the parliamentary altercation in which Zaev and other SDSM lawmakers were injured. However, the formation of the new government in the middle of 2017 ushered in a return to more normal parliamentary activity, which has since continued. Nevertheless, post-Prespa legislative activity is still marked by a tense atmosphere.
The election of Stevo Pendarovski as president in May 2019 resolved an impasse between the legislature and executive that had existed for much of the previous three years, as both bodies are now governed by the SDSM. The SDSM-led parliament has continued to govern responsibly and in dialogue with its partners in the ethnic Albanian blocs.
Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 to reflect a steady, multiyear decline in obstructionism in the parliament.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||2.002 4.004|
Corruption remains a serious problem, and there has been widespread impunity for corrupt government officials, including members of parliament and the judiciary. While the 2020 EU progress report praised North Macedonia’s steady reforms, serious corruption and procurement scandals continue to emerge.
The August 2019 arrest on extortion charges of Katica Janeva, the outgoing special prosecutor appointed in 2015 to investigate the revelations of the wiretapping program, shook public trust in anticorruption efforts. Local papers reported that Janeva allegedly joined two others, including reality television star Bojan Jovanovski, in blackmailing the well-known businessman Orce Kamcev. In June 2020, Janeva was found guilty of abuse of office and sentenced to a seven-year prison term.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||2.002 4.004|
The law on open access to public information is inconsistently implemented. While the government has pledged to undertake reforms aimed at increasing its transparency, it has yet to register concrete progress.
In 2020, legal experts expressed concern about significant, last-minute changes to a draft public prosecutor law, made quickly just before the law’s approval. Lawmakers passed the measure in February 2020 as part of a drive to open EU accession talks.
|Are there free and independent media?||3.003 4.004|
North Macedonia’s media landscape is deeply polarized along political lines, and private media outlets are often tied to political or business interests that influence their content. However, a wide collection of critical and independent outlets operate and are found mainly online.
North Macedonian journalists remain subject to political pressure and harassment, and physical attacks continue to be reported.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||3.003 4.004|
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion. However, Islamophobia is present in the rhetoric of politicians and in public discourse, and is directed primarily at the ethnic Albanian community and the Roma.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||3.003 4.004|
Academic freedom is largely respected, but corruption in universities is significant. Many textbooks minimally cover the postindependence period, primarily because ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians interpret the 2001 civil conflict differently.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||3.003 4.004|
Allegations of widespread wiretapping and monitoring of private citizens, journalists, politicians, and religious leaders by the previous VMRO–DPMNE government helped bring about its ouster. The SDSM-led government has taken some steps to reform the national security service, which was widely believed to have carried out the surveillance program under former prime minister Gruevski’s direction. Notably, in December 2018, the parliament passed a law that rolled back the power of the secret police to conduct surveillance activities.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||3.003 4.004|
Constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly are generally well respected. However, demonstrations are typically monitored by riot police, who in the past have employed disproportionate force against demonstrators, and protests sometimes give way to property damage.
In September 2020, members of the Romany community protested police violence against their community, after footage emerged of an officer beating a Romany man in Bitola. The protests took place peacefully, without interference by authorities.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||3.003 4.004|
The government has expressed support for civil society. However, groups that focus on human rights– and governance-related work, and particularly those that receive foreign funding, face pressure from the VMRO–DPMNE and its supporters. Since the change in government in 2017, the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has become freer and safer, and public institutions have become more responsive to the work and engagement of the civil society sector.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||2.002 4.004|
Workers may organize and bargain collectively, though trade unions lack stable financing and skilled managers, and journalists have reportedly been fired for their union activities.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||2.002 4.004|
Concerns remain about the efficacy and independence of the judiciary. The EU stressed judicial reforms as a key priority for the government’s accession bid. In 2018, the government adopted a number of reforms aimed at enhancing judicial independence, including the strengthening of mechanisms to address misconduct by judges. However, not all of the judicial reforms promised by the government have been implemented.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||2.002 4.004|
Due process rights remain compromised by corruption and patronage within the justice system, in which the public has little confidence. Political interference in the work of prosecutors remains a problem. The selective application of justice also persists, although the government has carried out some reforms intended to ameliorate the issue. The 2019 arrest of the special prosecutor has also weakened the SDSM government’s overall anticorruption agenda.
In February 2020, as part of efforts to open accession talks with the EU, lawmakers approved a measure allowing the transfer of cases from the former special prosecutor’s office to ordinary state prosecutors, with some limitations on when illegally wiretapped conversations may be introduced as evidence. Another section of the law stipulated a new process for the appointment of the prosecutor for organized crime and corruption cases, which envisioned that that official would be voted on by other prosecutors across the country ahead of formal appointment by the Council of Public Prosecutors. The law prompted complaints from the VMRO–DPMNE, which alleged that the SDSM was attempting to establish influence within the justice system. Both the VMRO–DPMNE and legal experts voiced disapproval of significant, last-minute changes to the text, apparently the result of political bargaining that ensured the law’s approval.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||3.003 4.004|
The threat of physical violence has subsided significantly under the tenure of the SDSM government. In February 2019, police successfully prevented an attack planned by supporters of the Islamic State (IS).
There have been occasional outbreaks of interethnic violence in North Macedonia. In 2015, 18 people were killed in violent clashes between police and a group of Albanian extremists in Kumanovo as well as near the border with Kosovo. However, such incidents have been less frequent in recent years.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||2.002 4.004|
A 2010 antidiscrimination law does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, and anti-LGBT+ sentiment is widespread. In August 2019, Prime Minister Zaev faced an outcry after using a homophobic slur in responding to a question on the corruption charges against former special prosecutor Janeva. His statement and subsequent apology were severely criticized as inadequate by local journalists, as well as by the North Macedonian office of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights.
Laws prohibit workplace sexual harassment, but the issue persists, and most instances are rarely reported.
Albanians suffer from discrimination in employment and anti-Albanian sentiment has flared in recent years. The Romany people face employment and other discrimination. Footage in September 2020 of a police officer brutalizing a Romany man in Bitola once again highlighted the marginalized position and routine violence that members of the Romany community face in North Macedonia.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||3.003 4.004|
Travel and movement are generally unrestricted. Corruption can hamper people’s ability to freely choose their place of employment or education.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||3.003 4.004|
The right to own property and establish private businesses is generally respected, though corruption remains a barrier to free enterprise.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||2.002 4.004|
Rape, including spousal rape, is illegal, as is domestic violence, which remains common; both are infrequently reported. The government and some NGOs provide services to victims of domestic violence.
A 2017 ruling by the Administrative Court allowed people to change their gender in the country’s official registry to match their gender identity.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||2.002 4.004|
Laws do not impose rigid barriers to social mobility, though rampant corruption can effectively hamper individuals from rising to higher income levels. The informal economy is large, leaving many workers vulnerable to employer abuse.
Human trafficking remains a problem. The government has taken some steps to better identify trafficking victims, notably at government-run transit centers that house migrants and refugees. However, government support to NGOs that aid trafficking victims has decreased.
On North Macedonia
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Global Freedom Score67 100 partly free