North Macedonia elects new president after name change deal

Macedonians are casting their votes on Sunday in the first round of a presidential election that has been overshadowed by the country’s name change deal with Greece.

The name change accord, in which Greece demanded the end to what it called an implied territorial claim on its northern province of the same name, resolves a decades-old dispute. It also opens up the possibility of Macedonian membership of NATO and the EU.

But as Macedonians go to the polls, they remain divided over the deal. “We have to put an end to this. We need to stop the sale of our national interest,” said Ilija Velkovski, a 67-year old pensioner, after casting his vote. “Yes, we want EU and NATO, but not like this.”

Roughly 1.8 million voters will choose between three pro-EU and pro-NATO candidates. More than 3,400 polling stations opened at 7 a.m. local time on Sunday morning and will close at 7 p.m. local time.

The candidates are vying for the largely ceremonial role, and none of them is expected to win an outright majority.

Read more: North Macedonia name change both heals and divides

Who are the candidates?

  • Stevo Pendarovski (pictured), 56, is an ex-national security adviser who ran for the presidency in 2014. The ruling social democrats, ethnic Albanian Democratic Union and 29 smaller parties back him. He supports the deal with Greece.
  • Gordana Siljanovska Davkova, 63, is the first female presidential candidate since the country declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. The main conservative opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE, supports her bid. She supports EU and NATO membership, but opposed the accord with Greece.
  • Blerim Reka, 58, is an ethnic Albanian candidate. Two small ethnic Albanian opposition parties, BESA and the Alliance of Albanians, support him. The former diplomat backs the name change deal.

Read more: Greece-North Macedonia ‘selfie diplomacy’ warms relations

What do the pollsters say? Pendarovski is leading the pack with 28.8% support, according to a recent poll. Siljanovska-Davkova polled second with 26.8% and Reka came in third with 7%.

Why the name change? The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia wanted to call itself Macedonia. Greece feared that name could give its northern neighbor a claim to the Greek province of Macedonia. Both countries agreed on the compromise North Macedonia in June 2018. That paved the way for the country to start accession talks with the EU and NATO.

Read more: Macedonia: What’s in a name?

Who’s the current president? The outgoing nationalist president, Gjeorge Ivanov, was first elected in 2009. His second term has been controversial because he refused to sign several laws, including one that expands the use of the Albanian language.

Albanian omission: About 1 in 4 Macedonians is ethnically Albanian, yet no Albanian candidate has ever made it to the second round.

What happens next? If no one wins more than 50% of the vote, a run-off election will be held on May 5.

amp/jm (AFP, Reuters)

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