Renamed North Macedonia Revisits Row That Opened NATO Path

(Bloomberg) -- As workers in this Balkan state redesign everything from road signs to passports to reflect a name change that opened the way to western integration, their biggest political parties are refighting the battle that got them here.

North Macedonia’s citizens started voting Sunday morning in a presidential runoff that’s pitting the man who’s coordinating upcoming membership in NATO against a lawyer backed by the nationalist opposition to an agreement with Greece that ended a decades-old dispute over the former Yugoslav state’s name.

The ballot tests that pact on the orientation of a country caught in a tug-of-war for influence between Russia and the West. On one side is ruling Social Democratic party candidate Stevo Pendarovski, who’s pledged to push the nation of 2 million further toward joining the European Union and the military alliance.

Renamed North Macedonia Revisits Row That Opened NATO Path

On the other is Gordana Siljanovska Davkova, who lost by fewer than 5,000 votes in a razor-edge finish on April 21. She also says she wants to join NATO and the EU. But she opposes the name-change deal and has vowed to fight it -- despite its approval in a constitutional amendment -- a move that could snarl the long process the country must still complete to win membership.

"We will not let this happen," Pendarovski said during a campaign stop earlier this month. "We will continue towards EU and NATO integration, which is where we belong."

A crucial detail of the first round was the participation, which barely exceeded 40 percent. While the figure is skewed by old voter polls that no longer reflect a shrinking population, low turnout would scupper the vote altogether, because if fewer than two fifths of voters turn up, the ballot fails and the speaker of parliament takes over as president.

In the runoff, turnout at 3 p.m. was about 30.34 percent, slightly higher than in the first round, the State Electoral Commission said.

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has threatened to call a snap vote if the ruling party’s candidate doesn’t become president. 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, 56, is backed by Zaev. His cabinet came to power in 2017 after ousting Nikola Gruevski, a former premier and head of the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, who has since absconded to Hungary to avoid a jail sentence for abuse of power.

A former presidential policy adviser, Pendarovski is seen as having an edge because of support from ethnic Albanians, who make up about a quarter of the country’s population. They traditionally support NATO membership and didn’t oppose the name change. Siljanovska-Davkova, 63, opposed a law to expand the use of the Albanian language, citing procedural grounds.

“Siljanovska-Davkova may score close to Pendarovski," said Dimitar Bechev, a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington. "The vote’s result will depend to a high extent on the votes of ethnic Albanians.”

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