SKOPJE -- North Macedonia's pro-EU Social Democrats appear to have secured a narrow victory in the Balkan country’s July 15 parliamentary elections.
The 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 to preliminary results with 94 percent of votes counted.
The State Election Commission (SEC) said it would announce the distribution of seats in the 120-member parliament on July 16 once all results are verified.
If the results hold, former Prime Minister Zoran Zaev will likely get the mandate for the SDSM to form a new government with an eye toward advancing the country’s Euro-Atlantic trajectory.
Zaev claimed victory, saying his coalition with a small ethnic Albanian party won at least three more seats in parliament than the VMRO-DPMNE.
"We had peaceful, dignified, free, democratic, and safe election," Zaev told a news conference at his party’s election headquarters.
However, VMRO-DPMNE, whose leader, Hristijan Mickoski, ran a negative campaign attacking Zaev and tapping into nationalist-populist resentment, said on July 15 that they are still in the race to form a new government.
VMRO Secretary-General Igor Janushev said the party is entering the race to form a new government because the existing one is worn out and it is time for change.
"The race is uncertain," Janushev said. "We will still wait to see how the mandates will be divided in the end," Janushev said.
The largest ethnic Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), won 11.6 percent of the vote, putting it in a kingmaker position. DUI has been in coalition governments for the past 18 years and became the junior coalition partner of the SDSM after the last election in 2016.
DUI has suggested an ethnic Albanian should be prime minister. Ethnic Albanians make up about one-quarter of the population.
The Alliance of Albanians won 8.8 percent, the left-wing Levica 4 percent, and the smaller Democratic Party of Albanians 1.5 percent.
The election marked the first time an Albanian party, BESA, had formed a preelection coalition with one of the Macedonian parties, the SDSM.
The SEC website that publishes results had been down for almost four hours 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.
The vote was originally scheduled for April but postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. With the outbreak in resurgence, polling stations were open for two additional hours to reduce crowding. 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. The turnout among the 1.8 million registered voters was just over 50 percent
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 made efforts 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).
Hristijan Mickoski, the VMRO leader, ran a negative campaign, attacking Zaev and tapping into nationalist-populist resentment.
The VMRO opposed changing the country’s name from Macedonia to North Macedonia, which removed Greek 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.