Macedonians vote in election dominated by dispute over name change

People pass over the stone bridge in Skopje, North Macedonia April 19, 2019. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski

SKOPJE (Reuters) – Macedonians vote on Sunday in a presidential election dominated by deep divisions over a change of the country’s name to North Macedonia under a deal with Greece.

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 will choose between three candidates.

“We have to put an end to this. We need to stop the sale of our national interest,” said Ilija Velkovski, a 67-year old pensioner, after casting his vote. “Yes, we want EU and NATO, but not like this.”

However, 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.

Reflecting differences over the deal pushed through by the pro-Western government of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, the winner of Sunday’s ballot is not expected to secure an outright majority, meaning a run-off vote would be held on May 5.

Polls opened at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) and first results are expected around 9 p.m. (1900 GMT). According to the state election commission turnout stood at around 20 percent by 1 p.m. local time (1100 GMT).

“I expect peaceful and democratic elections,” said Dimitar Stankovski, a 42-year old legal adviser in a private firm after casting his vote.

“I expect that we elect a president that will take us into Europe where we belong. I know there is a long path ahead, but we need to start somewhere.”

A recent opinion poll gave 28.8 percent support and a narrow lead to Stevo Pendarovski, who is backed by the ruling centrist coalition of the Social Democrats and the minority Albanian DUI party, which has promised to implement the name change deal.

Pendarovksi said that he expects a high turnout because it was vote for how the country’s future will be shaped rather than a choice of president.

Pendarovski’s main rival, Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, an university professor, is supported by the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party, which strongly opposed the deal. The latest poll showed her on 26.8 percent.

“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.”

Blerim Reka, the candidate for the second-largest Albanian party, Besa, looks set to come a distant third with about seven percent of the vote, the poll showed.

Analysts say turnout could be low due to disillusion among voters at the government’s progress in attracting foreign investment and tackling high unemployment.

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.

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