Name Row With Greece Divides North Macedonia in Vote for Leader

(Bloomberg) -- North Macedonia’s NATO coordinator is poised to win the country’s presidential election this month in the first test of public support for a deal that put the Balkan nation on the path toward western integration.

After changing its name from the “Republic of Macedonia” to resolve a decades-long dispute with Greece, the former Yugoslav state is on track to become the military alliance’s newest member and hopes to start talks to join the European Union. But, with the country still caught in a tug of war for influence between the U.S. and Russia, the name-change deal is still facing resistance from the nationalist opposition.

Gordana Siljanovska Davkova, a law professor running for the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, said she considers the question "legally open" as she campaigns to take over from incumbent Gjorge Ivanov, who tried to block the deal with Athens. Government-backed candidate Stevo Pendarovski, 56, is hoping to ride a lead in opinion polls to victory in Sunday’s first-round vote.

"Our election will be decisive over whether North Macedonia will advance toward a secure future in NATO and the EU, or whether it will go backwards,” Pendarovski said Tuesday at a rally in the town of Kichevo.

Nationalist Opposition

While the post is mostly ceremonial, the president grants government-forming mandates and can veto laws, powers that can either ease or obstruct the country’s efforts to build deeper ties with richer EU states.

Pendarovski is backed by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s government. It came to power in 2017 after ousting Nikola Gruevski, a former premier and head of the VMRO-DPMNE party who has since fled to Hungary to avoid a jail sentence for abuse of power.

That might hurt Siljanovska Davkova’s chances. She trailed Pendarovski in an opinion poll published April 7 by the private Sitel TV channel with 27 percent to his 29 percent. A third candidate supported by two ethnic-Albanian parties, Blerim Reka, has about 7 percent. With no candidate expected to win more than half of the vote, a runoff is expected on May 5.

“Pendarovski will benefit from this, as currently many Albanians will vote for Reka, but switch to Pendarovski in the second round," said Florian Bieber, the director of the Center for South East European Studies at the University of Graz.

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