North Macedonia's pro-EU Social Democrats will try to start complex power-sharing negotiations after securing a narrow victory in the Balkan country’s July 15 parliamentary elections.
Former Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) secured 36.13 percent of the vote, compared to 34.65 percent for the right-wing VMRO-DPMNE, according the election results announced on July 16.
The State Election Commission (SEC) said the SDSM won 46 seats in the 120-member parliament, short of the 61 need to govern. The VMRO-DPMNE secured 44 seats.
The results mean Zaev is tipped get the mandate for his SDSM to form a new government, likely by reaching out to parties representing the country’s ethnic Albanian population, which make up about a quarter of the country’s 2.1 million people.
"We had a peaceful, dignified, free, democratic, and safe election," Zaev said as he declared victory at a news conference at his party’s election headquarters.
However, the VMRO-DPMNE, whose leader, Hristijan Mickoski, ran a negative campaign attacking Zaev and tapping into nationalist-populist resentment, said that they are still in the race to form a new government.
Political analyst Albert Musliu told RFE/RL that, given the results of the election, it will be difficult for the Albanian parties to bypass the SDSM and form a coalition with the VMRO-DPMNE.
The largest ethnic Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) won 15 seats, putting it in kingmaker position.
The DUI has been in coalition governments for the past 18 years and became the junior coalition partner of the SDSM after the last elections in 2016.
However, this time the DUI has demanded that an ethnic Albanian become prime minister, something the two main parties have rejected.
The Alliance of Albanians won 12 seats, the left-wing Levica two seats, and the smaller Democratic Party of Albanians one seat.
The election marked the first time an Albanian party, BESA, had formed a preelection coalition with one of the Macedonian parties, the SDSM.
Analysts say talks to form a new government are likely to be long and full of political horse-trading, but that the results of the election will advance the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration.
“One thing is certain, the balance of power in parliament will keep North Macedonia on course toward the EU,” Nikola Dujovski, a professor at the University of Bitola, told RFE/RL.
The vote was originally scheduled for April but postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. With the outbreak resurging, polling stations were open for two additional hours to reduce crowding and health protocols including a face mask requirement were enforced.
The pandemic and its economic consequences have become a major issue and appeared to dampen voter turnout despite health protocols at polling stations. The turnout among the 1.8 million registered voters was just over 50 percent.
The SEC said its website that publishes results had been down for almost four hours on July 15 due to a cyberattack, during which time the count was instead streamed live on YouTube. The election body said the hack did not impact the ballot count.
A caretaker government has been running the country since Zaev resigned from the post of prime minister in January after the EU failed in the autumn to provide a start date for accession talks.
After months of delay due to opposition from France, the EU in March finally gave North Macedonia a green light to start formal talks to join the bloc.
Zaev did much in a short time to mend fences with neighbors and advance integration with the West.
Since becoming prime minister in 2017, he reached a landmark deal with neighboring Greece to add "North" to the country’s name, clearing the way for Athens to lift its veto over Skopje’s membership in NATO. He also signed a friendship deal with neighboring Bulgaria, removing another impediment to prepare for EU membership.
Zaev has tried to convince the public that his party achieved results and promises a brighter, more prosperous future for one of the poorest countries in Europe, where the average monthly salary is 420 euros ($477).
The VMRO-DPMNE opposed changing the country’s name from Macedonia to North Macedonia, which removed Athens' concerns about a perceived claim to the Greek province of Macedonia. The party also opposed the deal with Bulgaria.
The vote carries broader geopolitical implications, as the EU and United States seek to bring North Macedonia closer to slow moves by Russia and China to increase their influence in the Western Balkans.