Low turnout dogs tight North Macedonia presidential vote

Saska CVETKOVSKA and Nicolas GAUDICEHT
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Stevo Pendarovski, presidential candidate of the ruling coalition, is narrowly ahead after the first round of the election but turnout was just 41 percent

Less than half the electorate of North Macedonia participated Sunday in the first round of the first presidential election since the European country changed its name.

The turnout of 41 percent of the 1.8-million voters, given by the electoral commission, was the lowest recorded in the six presidential elections the former Yugoslav republic has experienced since independence in 1991.

That figure appeared to have barely passed the 40-percent threshold of voters needed for the second round of the election to be held on May 5 to be considered valid.

With nearly all ballots counted, the candidates of the left and right were neck-in-neck and likely headed for a runoff vote in two weeks.

Stevo Pendarovski, 56, backed by the ruling leftwing government, was on 42.63 percent of the vote with rival Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, 62, of the rightwing opposition on 42.39 percent. Belrim Reka, 59, from the country's ethnic Albanian minority garnered around 11 percent, according to the preliminary results.

The vote for the largely ceremonial post of president comes less than three months after a deal with Greece on the name change came into force, ending a decades-long identity dispute between the neighbours.

That cleared an obstacle for North Macedonia's ambition to join the European Union. Greece, an EU state with veto power over new members, had objected to its neighbour being known simply as "Macedonia" because it has a province of the same name.

However, for the winner of the runoff to succeed Gjorge Ivanov, the outgoing nationalist president who was not able to run again having served the maximum two terms, there again must be a voter turnout of at least 40 percent.

- 'Won't change anything' -

Many voters were disillusioned with what they see as a corrupt political system, and with lack of progress on better economic prospects and jobs.

"I came to vote out of a sense of duty, but I don't think there is any point," said Pavlina Gosheva, a 53-year old nurse from Skopje. "For us ordinary mortals it won't change anything."

North Macedonia's unemployment rate is running at more than 20 percent, the average monthly wage is stuck at around 400 euros ($450) and many people have emigrated, demoralised by what they see as a lack of opportunities for people without the right connections.

Ljupco Nikovski, a 58-year-old police officer backing the opposition rightwing VMRO-DPMNE, said he had "never felt so desperate".

Emilija Stojanoska, 49, said protests she joined against the previous rightwing administration had not achieved anything. The arrival of the Social Democrats in power with the backing of the country's ethnic Albanian parties had not resulted in any positive changes, she said.

With apathy running wide and threatening to force a re-run of the presidential vote, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev emphasised that "voting is an honour, a right and a civic duty".

He earlier talked down the risks of a low turnout, but also set out possible solutions to such a scenario. They include a re-run of the election, doing away with the 40-percent minimum threshold, or even giving parliament the power to appoint a president.

- 'Immense' voter apathy -

A referendum backed the country's name change to North Macedonia last September, but the result was undermined by turnout failing to reach 40 percent.

Since it was only consultative, the government and parliament were free to go ahead with the historic name change anyway to settle the dispute with Greece.

Nazim Rashidi, senior editor of the Albanian-language channel TV Alsat, said of Sunday's election: "The apathy ... in particular that of young people, Macedonian and Albanians, is immense."

Politicians had failed to tackle unemployment, widespread corruption and nepotism or to launch much-needed judicial reforms, he added.