North Macedonia's pro-Western candidate set to win presidential vote-early results show

by Reuters
Sunday, 5 May 2019 19:10 GMT

* Results based on 66 percent of votes counted

* Pendarovski won 54 percent of votes

* Turnout was 44 percent (Recasts with partial vote count results)

By Ivana Sekularac and Kole Casule

SKOPJE, May 5 (Reuters) - Early results from North Macedonia's presidential election on Sunday showed pro-Western candidate Stevo Pendarovski on course for victory after a campaign dominated by divisions over a change to the country's name that was agreed to mollify Greece and open the way for EU and NATO membership.

The State Election Commission results based on 66.4 percent the votes counted showed 53.8 percent of the votes going to Pendarovski, who is the candidate of the ruling coalition and a long-serving senior civil servant and academic.

His rival, the candidate of the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, got 42.7 percent of the votes.

The two finished neck-and-neck in the first round of voting two weeks ago. In Sunday's run-off, Pendarovski had been expected to win support from voters of the second largest ethnic Albanian party, whose candidate Blerim Reka came third in the first round.

"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 organising free and fair elections," he said.

Greece had for decades demanded that the tiny ex-Yugoslav republic change its name from Macedonia, arguing that it implied a territorial claim on a northern Greek province also called Macedonia. The new name was formally ratified earlier this year.

But the accord continues to divide North Macedonians and has eclipsed all other campaign issues.

In contrast to Pendarovski, Siljanovska-Davkova, a university professor, opposes the name change, although she is also pro-European Union. She has accused the government of dragging its feet on economic reforms.

"I expect big turnout and I expect to win," she said after casting her ballot.

Asked what she plans to do about the name agreement she said: "Now it is the official name, it is embedded in our constitution. I will respect that, but I will never use it."

The presidency is a largely ceremonial post in North Macedonia but he or she is the supreme commander of the armed forces and also signs off on parliamentary legislation.

The refusal of outgoing President Gjeorge Ivanov, a nationalist, to sign some bills backed by parliament has delayed the implementation of key laws, including one on wider use of the Albanian language.

But Ivanov had no authority to block the constitutional amendments passed earlier this year by a two-thirds majority of parliament that enabled the name change to North Macedonia.

Turnout on Sunday was 44 percent, above the 40 percent threshold needed for the election result to be valid but still low, which analysts attributed to voters' disappointment with a pace of reforms.

Once a part of Yugoslavia, the country peacefully seceded in 1991 but came close to civil war in 2001 when ethnic Albanians launched an armed insurgency seeking greater autonomy. NATO and EU diplomacy pulled it back from the brink of civil war.

Zizi Markovic, 74, was the first to vote at a polling station in Kole Nedelkovski school in the capital, Skopje, when it opened at 7 a.m..

"I am proud to have been the first voter. I expect that after this election North Macedonia will move faster towards the EU and NATO (membership)," she told Reuters. (Editing by Gareth Jones and Frances Kerry)

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