North Macedonia holds elections dominated by the country's path to EU membership and corruption

Voters in North Macedonia are casting ballots in a parliamentary election and a presidential runoff

Konstantin Testorides
Wednesday 08 May 2024 06:02 BST

Voters in North Macedonia were casting ballots on Wednesday in a parliamentary election and a presidential runoff dominated by issues including the country's path toward European Union membership, corruption and the economy.

The 61-year-old incumbent in the presidential election, Stevo Pendarovski, faces Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, 70. Pendarovski is supported by the ruling center-left coalition, while Siljanovska-Davkova is backed by the center-right opposition.

Pendarovski and Siljanovska-Davkova squared off in the last election, in 2019, and Pendarovski had won with 53.8% of the vote.

The first round of the latest presidential election, on April 24, was seen as a barometer for the parliamentary election. It gave a clear lead to Siljanovska-Davkova, who garnered 41.2%, compared to 20.5% for Pendarovski. Turnout must be at least 40% in the runoff for the result to be valid.

With the presidency being a largely ceremonial post, the parliamentary election is considered the more important one.

More than 1,700 candidates are vying for the 120 seats in the unicameral assembly. There are also three seats reserved for expatriates, but last time around, in 2020, turnout was too low for them to be filled. Voters will be heading to 3,400 polling stations across the country.

Polls have consistently shown the center-right VMRO-DPMNE party, at the head of a 22-party coalition called “Your Macedonia,” with a double-digit lead over the coalition “For A European Future” led by the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, or SDSM.

There are also two coalitions representing ethnic Albanians, who account for a quarter of North Macedonia’s population: European Front is led by the Democratic Union of Integration (DUI), which has been the coalition partner of all governments of the past 20 years, whether center-right or center left. But VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski has expressed the desire to ally with the VLEN (“Worth”) four-party coalition, which has positioned itself to the right of DUI.

The month-long campaign focused on North Macedonia’s progress toward joining the 27-nation EU, the rule of law, corruption, fighting poverty and tackling the country’s sluggish economy.

North Macedonia’s path to the EU is being blocked by neighboring Bulgaria, which demands that the constitution be amended to recognize a Bulgarian minority. And while the center-left has agreed to the demand, VMRO DPMNE has denounced the government's “capitulation (to) Bulgarian dictates.”

Just over 3,500 people out of nearly 1.84 million identified themselves as Bulgarians in North Macedonia’s latest census, in 2021.

North Macedonia has been a candidate to join the EU since 2005, but was blocked for years by neighboring Greece in a dispute over the country’s name. That was resolved in 2018, but Bulgaria is now the one blocking the process — it has said it will only lift its veto once the constitution is amended.

EU membership negotiations with North Macedonia — and fellow-candidate Albania — began in 2022 and the process is expected to take years.

Corruption is the other hot-button issue.

A European Commission report last year said that corruption “remains prevalent in many areas” of North Macedonia. In December, U.S. Ambassador Angela Aggeler said there was “an epidemic of corruption in this country that has affected every sector, every organization, and only by exposing the corrupt actors can we begin to help the country address these issues.”

Mickoski has accused the ruling SDSM and DUI of a “corruption pandemic.” Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski has said he is “aware that people are not satisfied” and promised anti-corruption measures.

The State Electoral commission expects that more than 2,300 domestic and international observers will monitor the elections.

Preliminary results weren't expected earlier than Thursday.

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