North Macedonia's pro-Western Social Democrats said Thursday they were ready to start complicated power-sharing negotiations after winning a narrow election victory in a poll held up for months by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Former Prime Minister Zoran Zaev's Social Democrats declared victory after receiving 36% of the vote, according to official results.
But main conservative rivals VMRO-DPMNE were less than two percentage points behind and insisted they could ultimately prevail in coalition negotiations and form a government.
According to final results announced late Thursday, Zaev's Social Democrats won 46 seats in the 120-member parliament, well short of the 61 needed to govern alone. The conservatives got 44 seats.
Coalition talks will involve parties representing the ethnic Albanian minority, which makes up nearly a quarter of the country's 2.1 million population. The main minority party, the DUI, which won 15 seats in parliament, says it wants an ethnic Albanian politician as prime minister as a condition for coalition talks — a demand that both main parties have flatly rejected.
Another ethnic Albanian coalition of two small parties won 12 seats.
International observers, announcing the preliminary findings of their monitoring mission, described the election as being "well-managed."
The election involved two days of advance voting due to the pandemic and follows a spike in cases. Authorities Thursday announced 94 new infections and eight deaths, raising the confirmed death toll to 401.
Zaev, 45, led the country's effort to end a decades-long name dispute with neighboring Greece, clearing the way for the former Yugoslav republic to join NATO earlier this year.
Political analyst Albert Musliu told the AP that power-sharing negotiations, which are expected to last several weeks, are likely to be complicated.
"We'll have to wait for the final results because even a small difference between political parties could make essential changes to the upcoming negotiations,″ he said.
Surrounded by party officials wearing protective masks, Zaev told supporters at a post-election gathering: "You are winners, be proud. Progress has won." He promised to continue the country's push to join the European Union.
The Party of European Socialists congratulated Zaev on Thursday, along with Greece's former left-wing prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, who negotiated the landmark 2018 agreement that eased years of animosity between the two neighbors.