The changing face of North Macedonian politics
Monika Zajkova from the Liberal Democratic Party wants to serve as an example for other young female politicians in her country
During the past three years, North Macedonia has been waking up after the decade-long hiatus of the conservative rule by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski (now exiled to Hungary, invited there by his fellow right-winger, Viktor Orban). The country has launched a painful process of modernization, is opening up to its neighbours, and has committed itself to joining the Euro-Atlantic family. The country had been through several cycles of protests, elections, and changes of government that energized its progressive forces. While there is still a lot of work to be done to clear up the clientelist networks that pervade public life in Skopje, there is now hope that things will change for the better very soon.
One of the young people riding this wave of change is Monika Zajkova. This 29-year-old is the second youngest MP in North Macedonia’s Parliament and one of the two representatives of North Macedonia’s liberal party – the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
Despite her age, she has nearly a decade of political experience – she joined the LDP’s youth wing in 2011 and became its president in 2017. Zajkova, who holds a degree in law, worked in four electoral campaigns before she made her own bid for MP in 2020. She was an advisor to the parliamentary group of the majority in the previous North Macedonian parliament and a cabinet chief to her party’s Minister of Local Self-Government during the previous government.
While Zajkova says she has had a fortunate career path so far, she does not think that being a woman in politics is easy in her country. Holding – and defending – liberal views does not make it much easier either. “It's very hard, especially trying to spread liberal ideology. Younger people, yes, they are more open-minded, but liberalism does not have the same standing here as in Europe and the Scandinavian countries,” she says. However, she adds with a cheeky grin: “to be a liberal in a conservative society is very difficult, but it's sexy to be different from the others.”
One of the most difficult things to fight, both as a woman and as a liberal, are the prevailing stereotypes. “The general perception is that liberalism equals anarchism. Nobody cares about what a liberal economy means, the real liberal ideology, and human rights; they ignore the basics,” Zajkova claims.
The same applies to being a young woman in politics. “It is very difficult to be a woman in politics, especially if you are young, because the perception is always that somebody is pushing you from behind,” Zajkova says. She adds that, while she has a long political biography and has been actively engaged in civic activism since 2013, the general opinion is that women only grow professionally under male patronage.
“For example, I was chief of cabinet for the Minister of Self-Government and one of the media put a headline on their portal "Minister, does your wife know who this girl is?" There was nothing about my abilities, my education, and my work. It was not based on reality, just an attempt to degrade my personality,” she laments.
Long-standing female underrepresentation
Perceptions about the role of women in the country’s political life have been a problem in North Macedonia for a long time. In fact, in the first couple of democratic elections, just five women won seats in the legislature in 1990 and a mere four in 1994. This level of (under)representation, unprecedented even for this region, was tackled by a consistent and thorough push for the implementation and increase of quotas.
On the surface, the situation of women in politics has been getting better: of the 120 members of parliament, in 2018 there were 45 women and a year later, 49, as the country’s parties started enforcing the 40% quota for the “less represented gender.” Yet, when it comes to branches of government and administration, where quotas are not imposed, the participation of women remains low – only six out of the country’s 81 mayoral positions and 5% of appointed executive positions are occupied by females.
“Theoretically, we have the quotas in parliament, but it is still a problem of perception – we have these women on the party lists just because of the quotas, not because society believes women can be good politicians like men. So we still have a lot of work to do,” Zajkova notes.
The role of clichés
Stereotypes also play a significant role. A report by the Skopje-based Reactor civil society initiative on women in politics claimed that, according to interviews with male politicians, the main reason for the underrepresentation of women in the field comes from their lack of willingness and ambition to take responsibility.
“We live in a patriarchal society, with a stereotype that women need to be housewives and politics is none of their business; a lot of people say we are unable to make important decisions,” the LDP politician adds.
At the same time, it is precisely the desire to oppose these attitudes that spurred Monika Zajkova’s drive to join politics. “By entering politics, I wanted to be a role model for my generation of young women, to show them that even if it is not easy, we can do a lot for society,” she says. For her, the answer is education – teaching children from school-age onwards that the place of women is not in the kitchen and that they can, just as men do, make decisions in the public sphere. “We need to raise a generation for which gender equality will happen normally, not because of quotas.”
Quotas may have a positive role
As a liberal, Zajkova is ambivalent towards quotas in general. “As a liberal I am against quotas, even though they are a kind of positive discrimination and they are necessary in a society like ours. But I think they can be useful because women can rise to their potential in institutions,” she comments. So far, their track record in Parliament is positive, the young politician says. “Every time we have an issue in parliament, our “women's club” is the first one that sits down and resolves the problem. We are showing that women are more open to negotiations, more open to accepting different ideas, and more constructive in politics than men are,” she claims.
One example she gives is that of discussing LGBT rights in Parliament. “Women feel more encouraged talking about topics such as LGBT rights, and they are the ones that fight the most for these rights. Last week we had an inter-parliamentary group for LGBT rights and in that group, only one person out of ten was a man. It shows that women are more open to such discussions.”
“Currently, in our society, we divide each other into left, right, and central parties; views are polarized but women are the ones trying to get around these differences,” the MP adds, concluding with the timeless quote of one of her role models, the late UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: “In politics, if you want something done, ask a woman.”
During her time in active politics, she has been seeing attitudes towards women change for the better, but she thinks much more has to be done. One additional issue is the overall distrust of politics by people in general. But being young and relatively new to politics helps in this case.
“In general, they see every politician as corrupt, but maybe they do not perceive us younger people as such because we are new faces. Maybe they perceive me as their hope to make things better,” the LDP politician says.
The joys and difficulties of campaigning for office
She felt it during the 2020 parliamentary election campaign. “I was very surprised when a woman on the street told me she recognized me as a person who promotes human rights, and said “oh, you are fighting for equality. You are doing very good things, but in this kind of society and with these sorts of politicians, I am not sure if you are going to succeed. But you have our support.” So people perceive me as their advocate and they know what I fight for,” Zajkova says with conviction.
Despite covid-19, she says that the experience of carrying out her first successful political campaign for parliament thrilled her. “It was a very positive experience, unfortunately it was during the pandemic. So most of the activities were online, through videos, Facebook Live, and so on. I was very excited during the campaign, running from one place to another, visiting more and more target groups. I said that I would work with young people, entrepreneurs, the LGBT centre, and the minorities in our country. I was very surprised that most of their reactions were very positive. Most people came to me and said that they see hope in me,” she says.
Quelling conservative fallout
Maybe it would come as a surprise that, despite the conservative backlash in the region and the prevailing patriarchal values in North Macedonian society, the country has not seen the same push for misogynist policies and debates as have neighbouring Bulgaria, Croatia, Poland, and Hungary.
“What is happening in Poland now, we had it here five years ago, when the conservative party (VMRO-DPMEN, the party of ex-Prime Minister Nikolay Gruevski) tried to pass an anti-abortion law but, fortunately, did not succeed. We changed the law during our first year in government. Abortion is a personal right of every woman,” Zajkova says.
The Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, known simply as the Istanbul Convention, was ratified in North Macedonia, despite conservative pushback. “Luckily, we had a woman as Minister for Labour, who finalized work on the Convention, so we ratified it in parliament. She pushed things forward. We still have more work to do, the ratification was only the first step; we have a lot of obligations that we have to fulfil, but once again we have a female Labour Minister, for whom its implementation is a priority,” Zajkova concludes.
What makes a politician proud
One of her proudest personal achievements is in the issue of more equal treatment of women – an anti-discrimination bill that recently passed through the country’s parliament. Even though the conservative minority in the previous parliament tried to twist the debates surrounding the law and “accuse” the government of paving the way towards legalizing gay marriage, Zajkova did not give in. “These are basic human rights, not something we are now "giving" to someone,” she is convinced.
Her theory of why conservative reactionism is taking hold all over Eastern Europe is that it’s a question of traditional values clashing with modern realities. “Maybe it is attractive to people that are still living with the image of a past when we had huge families, but now individualism is much more important than collectivism. Maybe this narrative still works in mostly non-urban areas. The attitudes of some religious leaders help the conservative narrative, so now with the new law on violence against women, there are also sanctions provided for religious leaders who advocate violence,” she says.
Monika Zajkova is full of optimism and wants to serve as an example of the change that is coming for North Macedonia – not only in politics, but in society as a whole, with younger people entering more and more senior roles. She concludes with a message to fellow women: they need to be brave, they need to raise their voice, and every woman should lend a hand to other women to show them that they can succeed. “We need to stand for each other and I am sure we will do great things.”