Fears of low turnout mar North Macedonia vote

People casts their ballot for the presidential election at a polling station in Skopje. Photograph:( AFP )

AFP Skopje, North Macedonia Apr 21, 2019, 10.08 PM (IST)

North Macedonians were voting for a new president Sunday in the country's first election since changing its name, but there were fears that low turnout would render the poll invalid.

By mid-afternoon, the turnout stood at 29 per cent. The vote needs more than 40 per cent turnout for a decisive result.

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

Candidates are Stevo Pendarovski, backed by the ruling leftwing government, Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova of the rightwing opposition and Belrim Reka from the country's ethnic Albanian minority.

Gjorge Ivanov, the outgoing nationalist president, cannot run again, having served the maximum two terms.

"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."

Many voters are disillusioned with what they see as a corrupt political system and some observers say the vote could fail to attract sufficient numbers.

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

Since it was only consultative, the government and parliament were free to go ahead with the historic name change anyway to settle a decades-old dispute with neighbouring Greece which will now no longer stand in the way of their EU or NATO membership applications.

But while the deal was welcomed in the European Union, many of the country's 1.8 million voters are more concerned with bread-and-butter issues such as jobs and earnings.

"I don't care about the candidates," said Jovan Dimitrovski, a 37-year-old IT engineer. "What counts for me is the economy but I don't see much coming our way."

The unemployment rate is running at more than 20 per cent, the average monthly wage is stuck at around $450 and many people have emigrated, demoralised by what they see as a lack of opportunities for people without the right connections.

'Desperate' 

Ljupco Nikovski, a 58-year-old police officer, said he was backing the opposition rightwing VMRO-DPMNE.

Nikovski said he had "never felt so desperate".

Emilija Stojanoska, 49, said her protests 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 changed nothing, she said.

If a low turnout forces a re-run of the vote, it may trigger a fresh political crisis that would put pressure on Prime Minister Zoran Zaev's administration.

"Voting is an honour, a right and a civic duty," Zaev said.

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-per cent minimum threshold, or even giving parliament the power to appoint a president.

Nazim Rashidi, senior editor of the Albanian-language channel TV Alsat, said none of those proposals addressed the real problem.

"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.

"A growing number think that their vote will not bring about significant change," law professor Dragan Gocevski said.

Voting started at 7:00 am, and runs until 7:00 pm.

Story highlights

By mid-afternoon, the turnout stood at 29 per cent. The vote needs more than 40 per cent turnout for a decisive result.