North Macedonia on knife-edge as indecisive election goes to runoff

Presidential polls have thrown North Macedonia into political uncertainty with the Balkan state on a knife-edge after an inconclusive election dominated by deep divisions over a controversial name-change deal with Greece.

With record low turn-out preventing any candidate winning outright in a first round on Sunday, the showdown between pro-EU and nationalist forces intensified as frontrunners Stevo Pendarovski and Gordana Siljanovska turned to courting ethnic Albanian voters ahead of a run-off on 5 May. After coming in third with 11%, the minority’s preferred candidate, Blerim Reka, was forced out of the race.

“The jockeying has already begun,” said Marko Trosanovski at the Institute for Democracy Societas Civilis in Skopje, the republic’s capital. “The spillover will determine the result,” hesaid, adding that polls had shown most ethnic Albanians in the predominantly Slav state supporting the nation’s new name.

By Monday, with almost 99.96% of the vote counted, Skopje’s electoral commission announced that the two candidates, both university professors, were within a hair’s breadth of each other, highlighting the fragility of support for the accord.

Pendarovski, an ardent supporter of the name change deal that has sealed de facto Nato membership for the country and paved the way for EU accession talks, held a razor-thin lead with 42.85%, or 323,846 votes.

The 56-year-old political scientist was backed by the social democrat government and its junior ethnic Albanian partner, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI.

Siljanovska, the first woman to run for president since the former Yugoslav republic proclaimed independence in the early 1990s, garnered 42.24%, or 319,240 votes. Backed by the conservative opposition VMRO-DPMNE party and a vocal critic of a pact she has called humiliating and unconstitutional, the 63-year-old has vowed to contest the agreement before the International Court of Justice at The Hague.

The state’s electoral law requires a candidate to win support from 50% plus one vote of the 1.8 million-strong electorate. But with nearly all votes in, it emerged that only 41.8% had cast ballots, barely passing the 40% threshold.

Although the post is largely ceremonial, failure to cross the threshold in next month’s second round would almost certainly plunge the country into political crisis with yet further polls having to be called.

Late on Sunday, the prime minister, Zoran Zaev appealed to voters to back the “progressive” Pendarovski and not endorse his “destructive” opponent. “The world is tired of quasi nationalists and quasi patriots,” he said.

Monitored by over 400 international observers and 3,000 local staff, the ballot had been viewed as a key test for Zaev’s government, in the aftermath of the agreement being ratified by MPs in both Skopje and Athens in January.

But as in the referendum held over the name change accord last September, it was voter apathy that prevailed in a society split sharply between pro-European and nationalist camps.

“The result reflects polarisation over the [new] name but what is even more evident is the defeatism and cynicism of people towards politics,” said Trosanovski. “Voter turnout was lower than ever before. People may not relate to the opposition but in just two years the government has also managed to lose the support it once enjoyed.”

Siljanovska had argued that the low-turn out in September had deprived the referendum of the legitimacy necessary to make it valid. Economic disgruntlement among a population that has seen around 400,000 mostly young people migrate in search of work was partly on display in Sunday’s result, analysts said.

But those who stayed away or chose to cast invalid ballots were also infuriated by the way the historic deal had been implemented by a government forced to make unpopular political compromises to ram the agreement through parliament.

Zaev’s pro-western social democrat party came to power pledging to restore rule of-law after more than a decade of total state capture under the corrupt governance of his nationalist right-wing predecessor Nikola Gruesvki. With faith in politics dented by widespread corruption and cronyism, disaffection has also grown at the sight of senior figures from that time now enjoying amnesty from prosecution.

Gjorge Ivanov, the outgoing president whose second five-year term expires on 12 May, had argued vehemently against the accord and actively sought to derail it.

The country, previously known as the Republic of Macedonia, agreed to the new name to appease Greece’s long-held fears of possible irredentist claims against its own adjacent province of Macedonia.

In exchange Athens dropped objections to its northern neighbour joining the western military alliance and the European Union – both seen as vital if economic progress and improvement of living standards are to be made in one of the most strategically located countries in the traditionally unstable Balkan peninsula.

Despite being welcomed as a rare diplomatic success story in Europe, the deal has also faced vociferous criticism in Greece especially in Thessaloniki and the northern regions abutting the Balkan state.