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)

North Macedonia holds runoff vote for ceremonial presidency

May 05, 2019 - 1:07 pm

SKOPJE, North Macedonia (AP) — North Macedonia held a competitive runoff election Sunday to choose a new president, a vote seen as a test of the center-left government's pro-West policies despite the largely ceremonial duties of the country's head of state.

The two candidates, Stevo Pendarovski of the ruling Social Democratic Union, and Gordana Siljanovska Davkova, who was backed by the conservative opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, each received about 42% in the first round of voting on April 21.

They took opposing positions in the campaign on the government's deal with Greece to rename the country in exchange for NATO membership.

A key question in the runoff was whether voter turnout would reach the 40% threshold needed for the election to be valid. The day started off with rain, and if too few ballots were cast the two-round contest would have to be repeated.

"This is not a day to stay at home, but to contribute to the future of the country," said Ali Ahmeti, a leader of the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration, a junior partner in the current government.

At 5 p.m. local time (1500GMT), voter turnout stood at 38.2% and two hours remained before the close of polls, the State Electoral Commission said. The turnout for the first round vote was 41.8%.

North Macedonia previously was known as 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 she cast her ballot Sunday that 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.

Parliament speaker Talat Xhaferi would serve as the acting head of state if turnout is too low for a valid presidential election.

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