People arrive at a polling station to vote for the presidential election, in Skopje, North Macedonia, Sunday, May 5, 2019. Polls opened early Sunday in North Macedonia for a presidential election runoff with key concern whether the needed 40 % turnout will be reached for the vote to be valid. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

Government's candidate takes lead in North Macedonia runoff

May 05, 2019 - 4:02 pm

SKOPJE, North Macedonia (AP) — The presidential candidate backed by North Macedonia's center-left government had a comfortable lead over a conservative rival based on preliminary returns from a runoff election Sunday.

With over 80 percent of polling stations reporting, Stevo Pendarovski of the ruling Social Democratic Union had 52.8% of the vote. Gordana Siljanovska Davkova, the candidate favored by the conservative opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, had 43.7%.

The two law professors each received about 42% in the first round of voting on April 21.

North Macedonia's head of state has largely ceremonial duties, but the election was seen as a test of the government's pro-West policies. Pendarovski and Siljanovska took opposing positions on a government deal with Greece that renamed the country in exchange for NATO membership.

A key question in the runoff had been whether voter turnout would reach the 40% threshold needed for the election to be valid, and it was State Electoral commission head Oliver Derkorski said.

Turnout for what Derkorski called a "peaceful and dignified" election stood at 44.5% of registered voters half an hour before polls closed at 7 p.m. local time (1700 GMT). The final figure has not been released yet.

Election observers reported a small number of minor infractions, such as voters photographing ballots with cellphones and disturbances outside some polling stations.

Naum Stoilkovski, a VMRO-DPMNE spokesman, complained about police "putting pressure" on party observers.

North Macedonia's previous constitutional name was the Republic of Macedonia. The name change took effect in February as part of an agreement to end a decades-long dispute with Greece, which blocked the former Yugoslav republic's path to membership in NATO and the European Union over rights to the Macedonia name.

Both Pendarovski, 55, and Siljanovska, 63, are law professors. Siljanovska said as she cast her ballot Sunday that she would respect the new constitutional name in a professional capacity "but will not use it personally" and planned to do her "best to show that the Prespa agreement (with Greece) has severe (legal) problems."

Although the presidency is mostly ceremonial, with some powers to veto legislation, the outcome of the vote could trigger an early parliamentary election. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who staked his reputation on negotiating the name deal, said he would call one if Pendarovski were not elected.

Outgoing President Gjorge Ivanov, a conservative, is serving his second and final five-year term, which ends on May 12. Ivanov opposed the agreement with Greece.

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