For a decade now, Macedonia has been systematically devastated by the deeply criminal rightwing populist Gruevski regime, which has demolished the rule of law, media, democracy in the country and has put the commons in the Party’s private possession resulting in rising poverty and unemployment, and a huge exodus of young people in particular. Following two waves of mass protests and an EU-mediated political agreement, the elections present an opportunity to finally get rid of Gruevski’s government. They also represent an opportunity for the relatively new political player, the recently formed left-wing Party “Levica” (Macedonian for ‘the Left’), to enter Parliament. Founded by longtime activists, some of whom have been prosecuted for their participation in anti-Government protest, “Levica” as the first truly left party in the country’s 25 years of independence represents a challenge not only to Gruevski’s regime, but also to the wider neoliberal hegemony. We spoke with Dzejlan Veliu and Recep Haktan Ismail, founders of Levica and candidates at the elections on Sunday.
1.In its 25 years of independence, the political battle in Macedonia has either oscillated around the political centre (when SDSM, the social democrats, were in power) or it swung to the right when (the currently governing) DPMNE was in power. What was the trajectory that enabled the left to evolve from total obscurity in the early 1990s, to the creation and the first electoral participation of a left party?
The marginalisation of the left came as a consequence of the declared failure of Yugoslav variant of socialism. Following the breakup of Yugoslavia, the free market and the wave of privatization were euphorically welcomed by the citizenry. There was a widespread belief that the process of implementing measures tailored by the international financial institutions will bring a brighter future. Our reality has proven these hopes to be wrong: we are now one of the poorest countries in the world, with over 30% unemployment rate (over 50% amongst youths), enormous class divisions, a tax haven for foreign investors and a hell for workers. A decade of rule by the inherently criminal and fascistic rule of the coalition between the Macedonian right-wing populist DPMNE and the Albanian BDI has completed the circle of this particular phase in the development of capitalism, in which the political and economic subjects merge into one establishment. And it has created the objective conditions for the maturing of a party such as Levica, a party which fights to see radical interventions with regards to the redistribution of income, taxation of wealth and a revision of the whole set of economic crimes that have been committed.
The historical development of the left in Macedonia, which paved the way for the creation of an authentic left political party extends back to the anti-NATO protests (2007-8), which in a way were the smallest common denominator of all the leftwing actors from across the left political scene in the country. There was also the anti-imperialist petition „Не пиеме нафта“–for the withdrawal of Macedonian soldiers from the war in Iraq,–protests against restrictions on the right of abortion, a movement against police brutality, etc. In this marginal space, which day by day was carving out its visibility in the public discourse, the movement for social justice Lenka (and later Solidarnost) was formed, which incorporated left activists from different left traditions in a more structured organisational form and articulated a left and anti-capitalist analysis of the main socio-economic problems in the society. Amongst the founders of Levica, and candidates on our electoral lists, there are activists from other movements such as the student protests in 2014, and the protests for the rights of freelancers.
2. Why did you decide to form a Party?
Our active participation in different movements and protest initiatives, led us to the realisation that acting as a corrective of the Government through NGOs or citizen groups, yielded limited results, which, although important, have no real power to address the exponentially rising social injustice in the society. At the same time, there was the need to fill the political vacuum left by the absence of a genuinely left political party on the political scene. Following intense negotiations, we reached a decision to form a party, which would enter Parliament, and which will continue its struggle there, the only difference being that the people who had been on the streets protesting will now be able to vocalise their demands from the Parliamentary podium. We will enter Parliament, but we won’t abandon the streets because we are motivated by our struggle and the changes we want to see, not by the parliamentary seats, as it is the case with the vast majority of politicians.
3.What are the measures that you hope to fight for from inside Parliament?
As the most radical measures from our programme, I consider the following: progressive taxes, the confiscation of illegally acquired property of state officials, free healthcare for all citizens, integrated education with ethnically un-segregated schools. We honestly believe that through our MPs we will be able to put forward good and just laws in Parliament, meant to enable us to achieve a meaningful democratisation of all the spheres of social life, to secure safety and economic wellbeing for all families, and to transform the institutions of the state into institutions at the service of the citizens.
4. What’s the internal Party structure of Levica?
We have the following party organs: Presidium, Central Committee, a Plenum and a Tribune. We function according to the principle of democratic centralism, whereby the executive of the party the presidium, does not consist of one leader but it’s a body which consists of several members. That means that we do not have a leader, but a collective leadership. One of the unique characteristics of Levica is that we don’t have hierarchical sub-units, like a youth section of the party or a women’s union, because we believe that such divisions breed inequality, and we consciously try to create structures that allow us to be equals. We have a party structure which is the most diverse from all the parties in Macedonia. Our party is multiethnic, that is, in the governing bodies of the Party we have members from many nationalities and ethnicities. One of our main objectives is to build a society which transcends not only ethnic belonging, but all the prefixes of identity politics, a society in which nationalism will be a past and the class consciousness will be high.
5. According to your political opponents and critics, the sheer extent of transgressions of the current government, and the destruction they have brought to the country, were sufficient reasons to unify all their opponents in a wide oppositional front against the criminal regime. Levica has decided to run independently. Why did you think that running independently was a wise idea?
Levica has decided to run independently for the same reason it has decided to become a parliamentary party, to allow on the parliamentary podium, for the first time since the country’s independence, a voice of the voiceless, of the workers, of the unemployed, of the free-lancers, trade unionists, workers made redundant, the poor, the students, and all those marginalised groups, who had not been heard by the state institutions. Levica will be the voice of the common man, who day by day struggles for bare existence, while a small group gets richer and richer at the backs of our labour and suffering. We are aware that the journey we have embarked upon will be long and strenuous, but we have made the first steps. Our experiences has taught us that mild reforms are not enough, they are only a small plaster on the large bleeding wound that is our society.
6. Some of your most vocal critics have been members of the liberal NGO sector, criticising your decision for independent participation in the elections. Members of Levica, have for years openly criticised the liberal NGO sector, creating many fault lines between the two. Why is that the case?
NGO activism as such, as a concept for political action is a liberal concept. It goes hand in hand and is complementary to the (neo)liberalisation of the labour market, and more generally the economy as a whole. This role of the NGO sector is especially visible in the postsocialist and transitional societies such as ours. The transition and the development of the NGO sector are two complementary processes of a singular historical period. It is very indicative that in the period while the NGOs saw a quantitative boom, the neoliberal tzunami somehow became “mainstream”. This by no means suggests that everyone involved in this sector has bad intentions, there are people there who do this simply as a profession. Our critique has been precisely in this regard, that this sector imposed itself as a sort of buffer zone between the Government and the citizens. The activists who worked in this sector, for Macedonian standards, earned quite high salaries, which led to the creation of a class of professional activists and careerists, who are part of the establishment, or are easily controllable by the establishment. Their existence serves a role to suppress or neutralise dissent that dares to pose a different, radical critique to the hegemony. At the same time, these organisations become completely alienated from the very problems that represent their raison d’etre. Their rhetorics became abstracted from reality, so every day we can hear reports for “successfully” completed projects while those exact problems are never resolved. I wouldn’t want to vulgarise the issue, but this is fake rhetorics, rhetorics which do not live WITH, but live OFF the problems of the different endangered social groups. Besides, another issue with this sector, is its bureaucratic shambles, which have not only suffocated the NGO organisations, but by attaching themselves to honest and genuine initiatives and citizen revolts, have also contributed to suffocating these even at their outset.
7. The participation in the electoral process, has given you the opportunity to directly witness the electoral system in the country. What has this experience taught you?
Democracy in general and particularly in the capitalist societies costs a lot of money, and that is one of the flaws compromising its core. In our case, in the case with the openness of the democratic process there are also formal obstacles. The bureaucratic procedures and formal requirements are not only extortionately expensive, but they are also extremely complicated and time consuming. For a young party without sponsors, which is entirely financed from donations and membership fees, this is a huge disadvantage. Considering that the economic situation of the entire society is disastrous, this financial-bureaucratic barrier means that participation in the political process as a party is reserved only for large parties, which function as corporations.
The electoral model is also devised in a way which presents another barrier for entry of small parties, as the electoral threshold (5%) is very high. In our opinion this is not a coincidence but a systemic constellation, which is a tacit agreement between the largest parties, which aims to secure their space and predominance on the political arena. But, through the determination of our membership base and our network of contacts built over years of activist, and the enormous support of ordinary people which have recognised our honesty, we have managed to surpass these difficulties so far, from registering and running a party, to running for elections.
8. You faced many obstacles in the campaign, very limited financial resources, tight and very marginal media space. In this very circumscribed space, what are your assets?
The limited space we received in the media is a direct result of the fact that there is no independent media in the country, and there is a fear from the “big fish”, and also from challenging the bi-party system. We accepted most invitations to participate in media where our candidates presented a determined, vigorous and articulate challenge to the current government. Most importantly, we have for the first time in the past 25 years, introduced class analysis consistent with left ideology, into the public discourse and completely shifted the coordinates of discussions about socio-economic issues. We ran an entire electoral campaign on less than four thousand euros, which that meant we had no party rallies, that we did not buy billboards or political advertising on TV. But, even if we had the money we wouldn’t have organised rallies, that is meaningless in a country with such high levels of poverty. Instead, we spread our ideas on social networks, and direct contact with citizens. We went all across the country building a movement, which we will continue following the elections. We relied on a whole movement of enthusiastic volunteers who helped with production of creative materials, eco actions, press conferences. “You have money, but we have a heart”, is one of our motos and our main electoral slogan is “Spark in the Dark”.
9. The Foreign Ministers of Austria and Hungary spoke at Party rallies of the right wing DPMNE, an indication of strengthened links between populist right wing parties in Europe, following their “collaboration” over the xenophobic securitization of the refugee crisis. On the other hand, the social democrats SDSM, were supported by liberal and social democratic sections within the European Commission. What are the international links and friends of Levica?
Of course, we collaborate with and have the support from international movements, associations and parties with which we share the same ideological values. Among these there are the parties from the European left such as SYRIZA, and the Communist tendency of Syriza, as well as the Greek section of the Intenational Marxist Tendency (IMT). There are also our friends from the United Left in Slovenia, and the Workers Revolutionary Party (DIP) from Turkey. One of our long-term goals is the creation of a Balkan federation. We would also collaborate with the European Left. Internationalism is one of the foundational principles of our party, and in accordance with this we will fight for the spread of left ideas and values on a international and transnational level.
10. What is your position towards Macedonia’s accession bid to join NATO and the EU?
As a military pact, NATO should cease its existence because it was the product of the Cold War meant to counter the now-defunct Warsaw pact. We consider our membership in international organisations and federations in relation to their values and principles, and the ways in which they contribute to social justice, equality and solidarity. We would like to be members of a union, which instead of a structure ruled by neoliberalism, is a structure guided by the aforementioned principles.
11. What would be success for Levica on Sunday? And what would be a failure?
The very foundation of Levica in spite of all the bureaucratic and financial obstacles, and its successful establishment in the political space, is success on its own. When it comes to electoral success, we have one of two goals, the first is that Levica become a parliamentary party. The second is to cross the electoral threshold of total votes on a national level, which would mean that we would receive funding from the state budget, which will significantly help our self-sustainability and character of an authentic left party. When it comes to the outcome of the wider elections, success would mean finally ending the regime installed during the 10 year rule of the populist right-wing DPMNE-BDI coalition. That would also be interesting, as we would have a future government consisting of a social democratic party confronted with exceptionally difficult trends in the economy (and later on in the environment) as well as facing the need for a complete reestablishment of a democratic political system in the country.