SKOPJE – North Maceodnia’s presidential election is headed for a second round after the top two candidates battled to a virtual tie in the first round reflecting deep divisions in the Balkan nation over its new name.
Pro-Western Stevo Pendarovski, and his main rival conservative Gordana Siljanovsa will face off on May 5. Results on the State Election Commission website based on 99.96 percent of the votes counted showed Pendarovski got 42.85 percent of the vote and Siljanovska 42.24 percent.
Blerim Reka, candidate of the second-largest Albanian party came a distant third, as expected, with 10.57 percent of the votes. He has not said whether he will back either candidate in the May 5 election.
The turnout in the April 21 vote was 41.8 percent.
Pendarovski, the country's coordinator for NATO accession who is backed by the ruling Social Democrats, strongly supported a deal with Greece to change the nation’s name, asserting that it would help pave the way for North Macedonia’s entry into the security alliance and increase hopes of joining the European Union in talks scheduled to begin in June.
Conservative Siljanovska-Davkova, 63, is a constitutional law professor who ran as an independent but is now backed by the main conservative opposition VMRO-DPMNE party.
She was a vocal opponent of the deal made with Greece to change the country’s name from Macedonia to North Macedonia. Athens for decades had objected to the use of the name, saying it implied Skopje’s territorial desires on Greece’s northern province by the same name.
"The choice in the second round will be easier, because the difference between me and Gordana Siljanovska is enormous,” Pendarovski said after it became clear the two were headed for a runoff.
“I believe that this will contribute to even greater determination in favor of my concept of moving forward because we know that going back is not an option. Back means blockade and crisis,” he added.
Siljanovska-Davkova said that as a constitutional law professor, she would "respect" the deal but also "will do my best to show that some of the solutions are against Macedonia's constitution and against...the norms of the United Nations."
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said in a preliminary statement on April 22 that the election was well organized and fundamental freedoms of assembly and expression were respected.
OSCE observers also pointed out that “wide-reaching electoral reform is still very much needed.”
“This peaceful, generally well-run election demonstrated that the political will can be found to hold democratic elections,” said Sereine Mauborgne, Special Coordinator and leader of the short-term OSCE observer mission.
“This constructive approach must be maintained through the second round and beyond. I sincerely hope that following these elections real effort will be made to enact a coherent electoral law and finally address the long existing challenges,” she added.
The OSCE expressed concern over the legal framework, saying while the law does allow for democratic elections, the electoral code is not tailored to the requirements of a presidential contest.
“The absence of explicit campaign rules for candidates resulted in parts of the campaign being carried out on the basis of cross-party agreements that did not provide equal opportunities to all candidates,” the statement said.
The country's election law requires a candidate to get 50 percent plus one of the 1.8 million registered voters, not just a majority of those who cast ballots for president, to be elected.
Part of the problem, analysts say, is that voters have been turned off by the inability of politicians to put in place policies to stimulate a struggling economy and lower stubbornly high unemployment at more than 20 percent.
Incumbent Gjorge Ivanov is not eligible to run again after serving two terms. Though the office has limited powers, the president has the final signature on legislation and is the leader of the army.