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It's All Academics When It Comes To North Macedonian Vote

Stevo Pendarovski (left to right), Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, and Blerim Reka will face off on April 21.

Imagine an election campaign run among candidates who aren't politicians. Macedonians can.

As an April 21 presidential vote approaches, the race between three candidates, all academics and none career politicians, has been dominated by debate on issues such as integration into Western structures.

In a country where previous election campaigns have been marked by violence, dirty tricks, and sharp nationalist rhetoric, Macedonians appear happy to be choosing candidates based on their opinions, not leaked wiretapped recordings, accusations of electoral fraud, or rumors on social media.

Those candidates are Stevo Pendarovski, the country's coordinator for NATO accession, who is backed by the ruling Social Democrats; conservative university professor Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, the country's first female candidate; and Blerim Reka, a long-shot candidate and former ambassador to the EU who is backed by two smaller ethnic Albanian parties.

All three signed a code for fair and democratic elections before the start of the campaign, signaling a new page in the country's election history.

"It's high time that we have the opportunity to choose a person who will be consistent at a time when we are about change in the new era we live in," says Ibrahim Hazimi from the capital, Skopje.

Heading Westward

On the heels of its historic agreement with Greece to change its name to North Macedonia and end a decades-long dispute that had blocked the Balkan state's path to NATO and the EU, the election is unlikely to see the country change course.

North Macedonia signed an accession protocol with NATO in February and the government of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has named EU membership as its main foreign-policy goal.

Though the office has limited powers, the president has the final signature on legislation and is the leader of the army.

Outgoing President Gjorge Ivanov has kept the name issue alive during the final months of his five-year term by refusing to sign laws that contain the name North Macedonia, including some that are critical to enacting reforms sought by the EU.

Pendarovski, a 55-year-old former political-science professor, has strongly supported the so-called Prespa deal signed with Greece last year to change the country's name, while Siljanovska-Davkova has been critical of it, though the opposition has said it will not cancel the accord.

"My vote will be guided by the candidate who offers a perspective on the future and who will guide us through the doors now opening," Skopje resident Gligor Stojmenov says.

Overcoming Disappointment

Opinion polls show that candidate may be Pendarovski, who lost to Ivanov in the last presidential ballot in 2014.

A survey conducted by the Rating agency between April 8 and April 14 put him in the lead with 38.3 percent, five percentage points ahead of the 64-year-old Siljanovska-Davkova and almost 36 points in front of Reka.

If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the two candidates with the most ballots will enter a runoff on May 5 where turnout must be at least 40 percent of the 1.8 million-strong electorate for the result to be valid.

"A large number of citizens are disappointed in general with politics, and have been exhausted by political battles and electoral processes the past few years," Marko Trosanovski of the Institute for Democracy says. "It will be extremely difficult to get out and motivate those who are undecided and those who are disappointed."

Once a part of Yugoslavia, North Macedonia left Belgrade's umbrella when it seceded peacefully in 1991.

But it veered close to civil war in 2001 when ethnic Albanians launched an armed insurgency seeking greater autonomy, and subsequent elections have been stormy.

Florian Bieber, a professor of Southeast European studies at the University of Graz in Austria, agrees with Trosanovski on the critical importance of turnout, especially given that there are no concurrent local or parliamentary elections being held.

"While the level of polarization between government and opposition is high, the candidates are less confrontational," he tells RFE/RL. "With the name dispute resolved, the main polarizing issue over of the past year is also not much of a topic.... The main worry is that turnout will become an issue, considering the required turnout for the election to be valid."