SKOPJE (Reuters) – Macedonia’s pro-Western candidate, Stevo Pendarovski, narrowly won first round of presidential vote dominated by deep divisions over a change of the country’s name to North Macedonia under a deal with Greece.
Ruling Social Democratic Union of Macedonia’s candidate Stevo Pendarovski casts his ballot for the presidential elections in Skopje, North Macedonia April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski
The change, which Greece demanded to end what it called an implied territorial claim on its northern province also called Macedonia, resolves a decades-old dispute and opens the door to Macedonian membership of NATO and the European Union.
But the accord continues to divide Macedonians and has eclipsed all other issues during campaigning for Sunday’s election, in which about 1.8 million voters were able to chose among three candidates.
Results on the State Election Commission web site based on 74 percent of the votes counted showed Pendarovski in lead with 42.6 percent of the votes. His main rival, opposition candidate Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova came second with 41.6 percent of the votes.
The two will face a run-off on May 5, reflecting differences over the deal pushed through by the pro-Western government of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev.
Blerim Reka, candidate of the second largest Albanian party came third with 11.5 percent of the votes.
Polls opened at 7 a.m. local time (0500 GMT). The State election commission put turnout at 39 percent.
Zaev’s Social Democrats confirmed Pendarovski’s victory.
“His lead (in the first round) means victory in the second round,” Aleksandar Kiracovski of the Social Democrats said, reflecting opinions that Reka’s voters would vote for Pendarovski in the second round.
Analysts said the low turnout was down to disillusion among voters at the government’s lack of progress in attracting foreign investment and tackling high unemployment.
“We need a new and better president, a nation’s father that will help move this country forward,” said Sonja Kjurcieva, a 49-year old housewife from Skopje.
“Together with the government they will bring us closer to Europe.”
The presidency has no authority to block constitutional amendments that were passed earlier this year by a two-thirds majority of parliament to enable the name change.
SHAPING THE FUTURE
Pendarovksi said the vote for how the country’s future will be shaped rather than a choice of president.
Siljanovska-Davkova, an university professor, is supported by the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party, which strongly opposed the deal.
“I expect to win the elections and be the first woman president of Macedonia,” Siljanovska-Davkova said after casting her vote.
“I am a professor of European law, so I’ll respect (the agreement with Greece),” she said. “But I’ll do my best to show that some of the solutions are against our constitution.”
The presidency of the former Yugoslav republic is a mostly ceremonial post, but acts as the supreme commander of the armed forces and signs off on parliamentary legislation.
The refusal of outgoing nationalist President Gjeorge Ivanov to sign some bills passed by parliament has delayed the implementation of some key laws, including one on wider use of the Albanian language – 18 years after an ethnic Albanian uprising that pushed Macedonia to the brink of civil war.
Writing by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Mark Potter and Louise Heavens