The first round of the presidential election in North Macedonia on April 21 ended with a lead of less than one percentage point for Stevo Pendarovski, the pro-western candidate of the governing coalition, ahead of the main opposition candidate.
Three candidates, all professors, entered the race to replace incumbent head of the state Gjorge Ivanov, who is serving his second mandate and cannot stand for a third term.
As no candidate won 50% votes of the registered voters, the second round due to take place on May 5 will decide who will be the next president.
The choice will be narrowed to Pendarovski, 56, who won 42.84% after 99.8% of the votes were counted, and his main rival, Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, 64, candidate of the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, who gained 42.24%, according to the state election commission data.
The third candidate, Blerim Reka, supported by two opposition ethnic Albanian parties, won 10.57% of the votes.
The turnout was low, at around 40%.1.8mn people were eligible to vote, but analysts say that the figure is unreal as many people have left the country to work abroad in the last decade, which according to some estimates is a figure of over 200,000.
The election was seen as a major test of the governing Social Democrats following the Prespa name deal with Greece. The country was renamed North Macedonia under the deal, which solved the long-standing dispute with Greece and opens the way for Nato and EU integration of the tiny Balkan country.
The name question was at the heart of the election campaigns of the two main opponents: Pendarovski who supports the deal as a means for achieving Euro-Atlantic integration, and Siljanovska-Davkova, a harsh opponent of the deal.
The results of the election showed that society in North Macedonia is highly polarised between the pro-western vision of the governing coalition and the opponents of the Prespa deal.
The results showed that Siljanovska-Davkova led in the most municipalities with a majority Macedonian population, which caused VMRO-DPMNE to celebrate.
This was the sixth presidential vote in the country and first after the changing of the name to North Macedonia.
3,094 local and 419 foreign observers monitored the elections.
According to the state election commission and the parties, the elections were held in a fair and democratic atmosphere, which is one of the crucial pre-conditions for the country to obtain a date to launch EU accession negotiations later this year. North Macedonia already signed a Nato accession protocol in February, and is waiting to become a full member by the end of the year.
The post of president is mostly ceremonial, but he or she is also commander-in-chief of the army and can veto laws adopted by the parliament. According to the Constitution, the presidential candidate must be over 40 years old and a resident of the state for at least 10 of the last 15 years.
Pendarovski was the country’s coordinator for Nato accession. He is a professor of political science and a long-term politician seen as having strong integrity. This is his second run at the presidency. In the previous election in April 2014, Pendarovski, the SDSM candidate, was defeated by the incumbent head of the state Ivanov, who was supported by now opposition VMRO-DPMNE, which at that time was a strong ruling party.