North Macedonia held a competitive runoff election Sunday to choose a new president, a vote seen as a test of the center-left government's pro-West policies despite the largely ceremonial duties of the country's head of state.
The two candidates, Stevo Pendarovski of the ruling Social Democratic Union, and Gordana Siljanovska Davkova, who was backed by the conservative opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, each received about 42% in the first round of voting on April 21. They took opposing positions in the campaign on the government's deal with Greece to rename the country in exchange for NATO membership.
The runoff took place in rainy weather, and a key question is whether turnout will reach the 40% threshold needed for the election to be valid. If too few ballots are cast Sunday, the two-round contest would be repeated.
"This is not a day to stay at home, but to contribute to the future of the country," said Ali Ahmeti, a leader of the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration, a junior partner in the current government.
At 1 p.m. local time (1100 GMT) turnout was 20.5%, slightly higher than at the same time two weeks ago, the State Electoral Commission said. The turnout for the first round vote was 41.8% overall.
North Macedonia's previous constitutional name was the Republic of Macedonia. The name change took effect in February as part of an agreement to end a decades-long dispute with Greece, which blocked the former Yugoslav republic's path to membership in NATO and the European Union over rights to the Macedonia name.
Both Pendarovski, 55, and Siljanovska, 63, are law professors. Siljanovska said as she cast her ballot Sunday that she would respect the new constitutional name in a professional capacity "but will not use it personally" and planned to do her "best to show that the Prespa agreement (with Greece) has severe (legal) problems."
Although the presidency is mostly ceremonial, with some powers to veto legislation, the outcome of the vote could trigger an early parliamentary election. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who staked his reputation on negotiating the name deal, said he would call one if Pendarovski were not elected.
Outgoing President Gjorge Ivanov, a conservative, is serving his second and final five-year term, which ends on May 12. Ivanov opposed the agreement with Greece.
Parliament speaker Talat Xhaferi would serve as the acting head of state if turnout is too low for a valid presidential election.