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 - 1:47 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 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).

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 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.

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