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Working to Build Trust in Politics in North Macedonia

Abuse of power has not been uncommon for North Macedonia’s public officials, regardless of the parties in power. For years, party members have used their affiliations to gain privileges and skirt the law. This kind of unethical behavior threatens the integrity of both leaders and parties and dilutes voter support, as evidenced by IRI’s June 2021 poll, which shows that a big majority - 69 percent - of respondents do not trust political parties.

The ruling Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) party is aware of voters’ distaste for rampant abuses of power.  Before its first internal leader elections and convention in the spring of 2021, the party moved to regain citizens’ trust. With the support of the International Republican Institute, SDSM developed a code of conduct and trained more than 400 party members on ethics and respect for the rule of law and transparency, among other topics.

For over a decade, reports from watchdog organizations and the Macedonian media have highlighted cases of public officials abusing power.  The infractions range from using government vehicles for private or party activities, employing relatives and party cronies, influencing procurement processes, and unreasonable spending for travel, food and other supplies. Other accusations include failing to follow standards of behavior, including mistreating colleagues, disrespect for political opponents, and conflating personal opinions with party directives. All of this undermines citizens’ trust in political parties and also their support for the government and parliament. The numbers are clear: only 29 percent of IRI’s poll respondents trust political parties, and only slightly more trust the government, 35 percent, and parliament, 31 percent.

If parties want to gain citizens’ trust and win their support, their members and appointees need to demonstrate integrity, honesty, accountability and adherence to the rule of law. Public officials should address citizens’ problems, avoid conflicts of interest, make a clear distinction between party- and office-related duties, and they must avoid hate speech and show respect to their colleagues and political opponents.  

SDSM recognizes that it needs to raise the level of political culture – the set of attitudes, beliefs, discourse, and actions that shape political behavior. IRI worked with SDSM’s Research and Analytical Center to develop an improved, specific code of conduct for party members and appointees ahead of the first intra party elections for SDSM president in March 2021, and the party convention that took place two months later. At the party convention in May, SDSM’s deputy president, vice-presidents, secretaries, executive board and central board were all elected. IRI also helped SDSM develop a training curriculum for use of the new code of conduct; the training helped SDSM members better understand the code’s provisions and recognize good behavior. With IRI support, SDSM introduced the code of conduct to more than 400 party members, including the presidents of local branches, supervisory board members, councilors, local appointees and members of the party’s executive board. Zoran Zaev, the Prime Minister of North Macedonia and SDSM’s leader, thanked IRI and stated: “IRI has a proven track record with supporting ethical behavior in the government. With this, we want to act as a socially responsible party, gain the trust of the citizens, and I hope we'll trigger the other political entities to do the same.” 

IRI’s work improving political culture requires a constant investment in open discussion, behavioral education and training. Party leaderships have an important role to play and must lead by example. Promoting good practices between opposing parties and political leaders is another crucial step in advancing political culture. Such improvements could eventually encourage more citizens to engage substantially in the country’s political life and move North Macedonia forward.