After the resignation of Zoran Zaev as prime minister following the defeat of his ruling Social Democrats at Sunday’s local elections, his party will seek to remain in government while the opposition makes a play for power.

epa08539543 The leader of the ruling SDSM party, Zoran Zaev addresses to his supporters during the main election campaign rally in Skopje, Republic of North Macedonia, 10 July 2020. North Macedonia will hold elections on 15 July. EPA-EFE/GEORGI LICOVSKI

Three possible options loom over North Macedonia’s immediate political future after Prime Minister Zoran Zaev resigned on Sunday – the existing parliament majority led by the Social Democrats remaining in power with a new PM, a brand new opposition-led majority, or snap general elections.

Ahead of Zaev’s expected formal departure, the ruling Social Democrats on Monday took the first steps to try to preserve their thin parliament majority without him in charge.

They summoned the heads of smaller political parties that form part of the majority to a meeting at the government building on Monday afternoon to discuss their next moves.

Zaev, who tendered his resignation on Sunday evening from the prime ministerial post and from the helm of the Social Democrats after his mayoral candidates did badly in local election run-offs, sounded convinced that his party would manage to stay in power.

“I will stay in the immediate period ahead, while I am needed, so that a new government is organised with [the support of] the progressive majority [in parliament] which is there, and might get bigger,” Zaev said.

But this still leaves several key questions unanswered.

The main one is whether the ruling coalition’s already thin majority, resting on only 62 MPs in the 120-seat parliament, will survive without Zaev. Even if one small political party leaves the alliance, its majority will crumble.

This uncertainty is being exacerbated by the fact that so far there are no obvious successors to Zaev, both as premier and in his party.

Zaev’s resignation seemingly caught even his biggest ruling partner, the Democratic Union for Integration, off guard. Its leader Ali Ahmeti insisted just three days ago that Zaev wouldn’t quit, as these were just local polls. On Monday, the Democratic Union for Integration said that Zaev’s resignation had been “rushed”.

Meanwhile, the main opposition VMRO DPMNE, a right-wing party, reiterated it will try to form a ruling majority itself.

“The situation in the country is very serious and we will try to forge a new parliamentary majority,” the VMRO DPMNE’s parliamentary caucus leader, Nikola Micevski, told media on Monday.

Micevski said that if the party fails, “it would be for the best to go to snap parliamentary elections, because this government, this majority, has lost political legitimacy”.

As a result of Sunday’s run-offs, the opposition VMRO DPMNE party snatched 42 out of the 81 mayoral seats in the country, including the one in the capital Skopje. This was a sharp contrast compared to the previous local polls in 2017 when the Social Democrats won by a landslide, leaving only three rural municipalities to VMRO DPMNE.

VMRO DPMNE this time did not win by a landslide, but was helped by the worst ever turn-out at local polls in the country’s history of pluralistic elections, which was the main factor in the abysmal results for the ruling Social Democrats, who have managed to win just 16 municipalities.

But VMRO DPMNE’s efforts to secure a new parliament majority could also face hurdles. Together with their ethnic Albanian partners, the Alliance for Albanians and Alternative, they currently control 56 seats, five short of a majority of 61.

VMRO DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski in his victory address on Sunday hinted at where they could possibly seek new alliances.

He thanked several parties for going alone in the mayoral race this time and not supporting any of the two main blocs in the run-offs, which he said helped VMRO DPMNE considerably. The parties he mentioned were the small Albanian BESA Party, which has four MPs and is currently part of the ruling coalition, and the alliance of the Democratic Renewal, DOM and the Liberal Democrats, LDP, who also currently form part of Zaev’s government and control three MPs, and the small Levica party, which acts as an independent opposition force and has two MPs.

So far none of these parties has hinted at whether they might consider joining forces with the VMRO DPMNE to form a new majority.

In legal terms, Zaev’s resignation does not automatically mean snap elections. When he formally submits his resignation as PM to the parliament, presumably in the next few days, his cabinet will stay in office until the election of a new one.

But this would be true only if one of the two blocs swiftly garners the necessary majority after which the head of state, President Stevo Pendarovski, would have to offer a mandate for the formation of a new cabinet without the need for elections.

If neither side is able to form a government, things get more complicated, as a legal provision envisages the formation of a caretaker government 100 days before each parliamentary election, setting the possible date for snap polls next year.

Zaev is also yet to resign formally as a party leader of the Social Democrats, after which his party will have 15 days to set up an extraordinary election for a new head, for which post there is also no obvious successor.