North Macedonia’s April 21 presidential elections had a record low turnout. Only 755,816 votes were recorded, (yielding a 41.85% turnout) of a total 1,808,131 registered voters.  As expected, a runoff election will be held May 5 between the top two candidates.

The elections were transparent, well organized and held in a peaceful atmosphere, but according to the observations given by the EU officials, additional reforms are needed in the electoral law. Spokesperson of the European Commission Maja Kocijančič said that according to the report of the OSCE/ODIHR “the first round of the election was well run, and fundamental freedoms of assembly and expression were respected,” but that “the reforms of the electoral law that are in progress need to be finalized.”

In the first round of the elections, there were three candidates.

The Social Democrats’ (SDSM) candidate, Stevo Pendarovski, won 42.85% of votes cast. He is a political science PhD and supports the idea of rapid EU and NATO accession.

Nationalist VMRO-DPMNE candidate Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, a critic of the Prespes Agreement, won 42.24%. She is a constitutional law professor.

Blerim Reka, the candidate supported by two ethnic Albanian parties, is an international law professor and won around 11%. He supports the idea of North Macedonia’s EU/NATO integration and of “One Republic for all.”

Runoff May 5

On 5 May the citizens of North Macedonia will have the opportunity to vote in the second round between the two highest-ranked candidates, Pendarovski and Davkova.

The country’s voter lists are known to be a big problem, primarily because in the last 10 years between 250 and 500 thousand citizens emigrated for economic reasons and are still registered as voters. The citizens also showed their dissatisfaction with the undelivered promises made by of the government of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, mostly regarding economic issues. These last two years, the government focused its energy on resolving the decades-long problems with its neighbours (the Prespes Agreement and the friendship treaty with Bulgaria).

On the other hand, VMRO-DPMNE has already projected a win in the second round, hoping to gain some votes from Blerim Reka’s ethnic Albanian electoral base.  But in recent years this party has not shown the capacity to form a viable coalition with the Albanian parties in North Macedonia.

Albanian minority a critical factor; economy also important issue

The Albanian factor remains a very important question for the country’s continued democratic development as well as its NATO and EU integration. But, unlike in the past, where the Albanians were a united voting body, today they are divided by a wide set of factors and interests. A part of them, as a symbol of opposition, voted for Reka, and the others voted for SDSM-DUI (Pendarovski). This shows that it is likely that a significant part of the Albanian votes will support Pendarovski, another part will boycott the second round, and a small segment might vote for VMRO-DPMNE.

The 2018 Prespes Agreement, which aimed to resolve the Name Dispute between North Macedonia and Greece, played an important symbolic role in the electoral campaign. For Pendarovski and the Albanian parties, this agreement is seen as the achievement that will allow the country to move forward. For Siljanovska-Davkova, at the beginning of her campaign, the Prespes Agreement was portrayed as something that should be abandoned, but later she adopted a softer approach, claiming that she would respect the Agreement, and try to improve it.

Media reports from Athens indicate the Greek ruling party SYRIZA, which considers the deal as its major foreign policy achievement, is quietly worried that low turnout in the second round could then invalidate the election and complicate the implementation of the Prespes deal.

There is little question that North Macedonia’s presidential election was overshadowed by the country’s name change deal with Greece.  However, analysts say that another part of the problem is that voters have been turned off by the inability of the current set of political leaders to legislate policies to stimulate a struggling economy and lower stubbornly high unemployment of more than 20%.