What would normally be an inconsequential election for the largely ceremonial post of president in North Macedonia has crystallised into an unofficial referendum on the June 2018 Prespes Agreement which settled, at least on paper, the so-called Name Dispute between Greece and its newly-renamed neighbour, North Macedonia.

While this is not completely unexpected considering the difficult battle North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev fought to get the deal with Greece ratified, a wide range of reports from analysts in Skopje show this issue has eclipsed all other concerns in the presidential election campaign.

While the presidency is largely ceremonial, the president must sign off on legislation and is the supreme commander of the armed forces.  Outgoing President Gjorge Ivanov has on multiple occasions refused to sign off on legislation and was in most cases bypassed.

One such occasion, Ivanov refused to sign a law on the wider use of the Albanian language – a serious issue that had contributed to an ethnic Albanian uprising in 2001 that pushed the country to the brink of armed conflict in some regions.

Although strongly opposed to the 2018 deal with Greece, Ivanov had no legal authority to block constitutional amendments that were passed by a very slim two-thirds majority of the country’s parliament in a bitter cliffhanger vote in January, which enabled the country to officially change its constitutional name to North Macedonia earlier this year.

Three candidates line up

Three candidates are running.  If the initial poll has no clear victor with over 50% of the vote, a run-off election will be held on May 5 to decide the contest.

Latest polls show Stevo Pendarovski, backed by the ruling centrist coalition of the Social Democrats and the minority Albanian DUI party, winning 28.8% of the electorate. Pendarovski’s rallying cry “Forward together” makes him the candidate supporting North Macedonia’s hopes for rapid Euro-Atlantic integration, which may or may not come to pass quickly, depending on enlargement timetable decisions made in Brussels.  He is also a critical ally for Zaev.

Polls show Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, a university professor supported by the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party which fiercely opposed the Prespes Agreement, trailing with 26.8% of the votes. Her campaign slogan “Justice for Macedonia – the Fatherland Calls” tells most voters all they need to know.

Blerim Reka, the candidate of the second largest ethnic Albanian party Besa, is forecast to come third with around 7% of the votes.

Voter Turnout a major concern

Both electoral blocs share one common concern – that not enough undecided voters will support either candidate.  Their absence on 21 April could put the required electoral threshold for the election, of 40%, in jeopardy and harkens back to the September 2018 referendum on the Prespes Agreement which was declared invalid due to low turnout. This will be the first presidential election in North Macedonia since 2004 not accompanied by parallel local or general elections, which usually boosts the turnout.

Developments in Greece

At this point, there is relatively little coverage in the Greek media of developments relating to the presidential election north of the border, as the country is fully engaged in its own election cycle for the combined European and municipal elections in May. The onset of the Easter holiday period has also reduced public attention to developments abroad.

That said, the Prespes Agreement and its perceived cost to Greece remains one of the top debate items in most public electoral discussions. Two major polls released this week place main opposition party New Democracy ahead of SYRIZA in the European elections by a margin of 13.7% to 7.3%, depending on the polling firm reporting results.

Media attention in recent days has focused on the unhappy encounters many SYRIZA candidates have been enduring when attending election rallies in Northern Greece, with quite a few video clips shown on television of local crowds angrily telling these candidates to “go to Skopje” instead of meeting with the citizens in smaller rural communities.