BERLIN – The first parliamentary elections in Northern Macedonia since the country’s name change and the settlement of a long-standing dispute with neighboring Greece ended without a clear winner, so that the future diplomatic development of the country remained in balance.
The center-left Social Democrats emerged as the strongest party with 36.3 percent of the vote, with almost 90 percent of the vote counted. The party has several seats fewer than the 61 it needs to form a majority in the 120-seat parliament and faces several days of tense coalition talks with smaller parties.
The closest rival of the Social Democrats, the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE, won around 34.9 percent, which means that with the support of smaller parties representing the country’s ethnic Albanian minority, it could still come to power.
“It is still on the brink,” said Petar Arsovski, a North Macedonian political analyst and poll expert.
The muddy result reflects the ambivalence many Macedonians have towards Zoran Zaev, the leader of the Social Democrats.
As Prime Minister, he angered some voters by changing the country’s name and considering revising the judicial system. But Mr Zaev raised wages, led North Macedonia to NATO and cleared the way for application by the European Union by settling longstanding disputes with Greece and Bulgaria.
While Mr. Zaev’s nationalist opponents denounced the country’s membership in NATO and its E.U. They also want to rethink aspects of the agreements with Greece and Bulgaria.
This would likely lead to a diplomatic dispute and increase the risk that Greece and Bulgaria, both E.U. Members could hinder Northern Macedonia’s application. It could also distract international mediators from addressing other tensions in the Balkans, such as the unresolved dispute between Kosovo and Serbia.
While Mr. Zaev was praised as a statesman outside the country, within Northern Macedonia, he shares the opinionpartly because of a move his government took to end diplomatic isolation: to include the word “north” in the country’s name, a move that assured Greece that its neighbor had no more secret claims about the Greek region, which was also called Macedonia.
This decision made many in the small Balkan nation feel that their identity had been erased. Many were also annoyed at how Mr Zaev pushed Parliament’s amendment, despite the fact that the majority of citizens boycotted a referendum on the subject.
Mr. Zaev took office in 2017 after a government led by VMRO-DPMNE collapsed under a series of protests against corruption, judicial interference and government surveillance. His predecessor Nikola Gruevski later fled the country to avoid allegations of corruption.
Mr. Zaev resigned as Prime Minister in January to allow a caretaker government to monitor the campaign.
The quality of democracy in Northern Macedonia has improved slightly during Mr. Zaev’s tenure. This is based on annual reviews issued by Freedom House, a Washington-based law enforcement officer. However, his critics believe that he hasn’t done enough to strengthen the judiciary or fight corruption.
Slightly more than half of the voters turned out to be about 15 percentage points less than in 2016, which is partly due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, analysts said.
The election was originally scheduled for April, but has been postponed to avoid the pandemic culminating. The electoral agency delayed the announcement of the first results due to problems with its website, which the agency attributed to a possible hacking attack.
Alisa Dogramadzieva contributed to the reporting.