Voters in North Macedonia will choose a new president on May 5 in a runoff vote that will be watched as closely for turnout as it will be for either candidate.
Stevo Pendarovski and Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova face off in the balloting after a virtual draw — 42.8 percent to 42.2 percent respectively — in the first round on April 21.
That close outcome has put a spotlight on the Balkan nation’s ethnic Albanian minority, who strongly supported Blerim Reka in the first round, giving him 10.6 percent of the vote.
With Reka out of the runoff race, a lot will depend on whether his supporters even decide to cast ballots, and if so, for whom.
If fewer than 40 percent of the country’s 1.8 million eligible voters show up for the runoff, the election automatically becomes invalid.
About one quarter of the population is ethnic Albanian, and overall turnout in the first round was just 41.8 percent.
“I am calling on all of our citizens to go to the polls and vote by your own choice, but vote for the future of our country and of our children,” Prime Minister Zoran Zaev urged Macedonians in a video address.
The campaign itself has been rather low-key by Macedonian standards, with virtually none of the violence, dirty tricks, and sharp nationalist rhetoric that has marked previous votes.
While the president has a largely ceremonial role, the position does have some powers to veto legislation and Zaev has warned that the outcome of the runoff could trigger early parliamentary elections.
The race itself between the two academics has been dominated by debate on issues such as integration into Western structures and a struggling economy, plagued by stubbornly high unemployment at more than 20 percent.
Pendarovski, a 55-year-old former political-science professor, has strongly supported the so-called Prespa deal signed with Greece last year to change the country’s name, while Siljanovska-Davkova, the country’s first female candidate and a university professor, has been critical of it, though the opposition has said it will not cancel the accord.
The signing of the historic agreement with Greece changed the country’s name to North Macedonia and ended a decades-long dispute that had blocked the Balkan state’s path to NATO and the historic agreement.
Pro-Western Pendarovski is supported by the ruling Social Democrats. Siljanovska-Davkova, 63, ran as an independent but is now backed by the main conservative opposition VMRO-DPMNE party.
If turnout fails to reach the minimum requirement, constitutional experts say a completely new vote must be called within 40 days.
During the interim period, the head of the National Assembly, Talat Xhaferi, would assume the function of president.
Outgoing President Gjorge Ivanov was constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive five-year term.
Once a part of Yugoslavia, North Macedonia left Belgrade’s umbrella when it seceded peacefully in 1991.
But it veered close to civil war in 2001 when ethnic Albanians launched an armed insurgency seeking greater autonomy, and subsequent elections have been stormy.
Polling stations open at 7 a.m. local time and will remain open until 7 p.m. (RFERL)