North Macedonia holds a parliamentary election on Wednesday that may decide the pace of the country’s bid for European Union membership, with the governing pro-EU Social Democrats and the main opposition nationalists locked in a close race.
The vote was originally scheduled for April but postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Parliament dissolved in February following the resignation of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev after the EU declined to give the ex-Yugoslav republic a date for membership negotiations. A month later the EU announced that talks could begin, again setting no date but diplomats said it would likely be later this year.
One recent election poll suggested a narrow victory for Zaev’s Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) while another indicated the opposition nationalist VMRO-DPMNE of Hristijan Mickoski would come out on top. Both polled less than 25%, meaning they will need partners for a working majority.
Zaev engineered a landmark agreement with Greece that changed the small Balkan country’s name, ending a decades-long row, paving the way for North Macedonia to join NATO and progress toward EU accession talks after years of delay.
“We built bridges, we built friendship, we ... opened the doors to NATO and the European Union,” Zaev told his final pre-election party rally in the southern town of Bitola.
The VMRO opposed the addition of “North” to the country’s name, which settled Greek concerns about a perceived claim to the Greek province of Macedonia, and also accuses Zaev and the SDSM of corruption and cronyism, charges they deny.
“They [Social Democrats] changed, sold everything they could..., even our history and language. We must stop this depletion of Macedonia,” Mickoski told supporters in the eastern town of Stip.
Analysts say an SDSM victory could lend momentum to Skopje’s membership talks with the EU and improve stability in the historically volatile Western Balkans, a region also taking in Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Montenegro and Albania.
Skopje analyst Petar Arsovski said if VMRO-DPMNE won, it would not abandon the deal with Greece but might try to hold up implementing some aspects, such as renaming the currency and changing uniform symbols, risking new obstacles to the EU bid.