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Pendarovski Leads In North Macedonia Presidential Vote


Presidential candidate Stevo Pendarovski
Presidential candidate Stevo Pendarovski

Stevo Pendarovski, backed by North Macedonia's ruling party, appears headed for victory in a presidential runoff vote that will be ruled valid after the minimum participation threshold was reached.

With just over 95 percent of the votes counted in the May 5 election, Pendarovski, a 55-year-old former political-science professor, had 52 percent to 44.4 percent for his challenger, Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova.

Just as important, the Central Election Commission said that turnout was 46.2 percent, erasing fears that the 40 percent participation threshold needed to make the balloting official would not be met.

Pendarovski and Siljanovska-Davkova battled to a virtual draw -- 42.8 percent to 42.2 percent respectively -- in the first round on April 21.

That close outcome has put a spotlight on the Balkan nation’s ethnic Albanian minority, who strongly supported Blerim Reka in the first round, giving him 10.6 percent of the vote.

Presidential Candidates Vote In North Macedonia's Runoff
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WATCH: Presidential Candidates Vote In North Macedonia's Runoff

With Reka out of the runoff race, many feared his supporters would boycott the runoff, which could have kept turnout below 40 percent. About one-quarter of the population is ethnic Albanian, and overall turnout in the first round was just 41.8 percent.

The campaign itself was rather low key by Macedonian standards, with virtually none of the violence, dirty tricks, and sharp nationalist rhetoric that has marked previous votes.

While the president has a largely ceremonial role, the position does have some powers to veto legislation and Prime Minister Zoran Zaev had warned the outcome of the runoff could trigger early parliamentary elections.

The race between the two academics was dominated by debate on issues such as integration into Western structures and a struggling economy, plagued by stubbornly high unemployment at more than 20 percent.

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, the country's first female candidate and a university professor, has been critical of it, though the opposition has said it will not cancel the accord.

"I expect a massive victory in the run-off," Pendarovski told reporters after casting his ballot. "I expect the election day to be calm and that we -- the country which is expecting to get the date to start the EU membership talks -- are capable of organizing free and fair elections," he said.

Siljanovska-Davkova, who unlike her opponent opposes the name change, instead has tried to focus on the government's failure to implement much-needed economic reforms.

"I expect big turnout and I expect to win," she said after voting, adding that she will respect the fact that the country has a new name, "but I will never use it."

The signing of the historic agreement with Greece changed the country's name to North Macedonia and ended a decades-long dispute that had blocked the Balkan state's path to NATO and the European Union.

Pro-Western Pendarovski is supported by the ruling Social Democrats. Siljanovska-Davkova, 63, ran as an independent but is now backed by the main conservative opposition VMRO-DPMNE party.

Macedonia's parliament speaker, Talat Xhaferi, might have to assume the president's duties if turnout is too low. (file photo)
Macedonia's parliament speaker, Talat Xhaferi, might have to assume the president's duties if turnout is too low. (file photo)

Voter apathy has been fueled by a lack of jobs, which has forced many Macedonians to move abroad to find work.

One of the poorest countries in Europe with an average monthly salary of about $470, many voters say they're fed up with politicians on both sides of the legislature and voting for a president won't change their situation.

"I'm not going to vote because my ID is in my wallet and my wallet is empty. So when I look at it, it reminds me that I shouldn't vote," one voter said wryly.

If turnout fails to reach the minimum requirement, constitutional experts say a completely new vote must be called within 40 days.

During the interim period, the head of the National Assembly, Talat Xhaferi, would assume the function of president.

Outgoing President Gjorge Ivanov was constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive five-year term.

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.

The election commission said that voting on May 5 went without any major incidents.

With reporting by AP and AFP
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