North Macedonia prepares for first election since name change – and it's going to be close
North Macedonia's parliamentary election on Wednesday — the country's first since it changed its name last year — will see a contest between two broad coalitions that broadly have the same objective: European Union membership.
Opinion polls suggest a close race between the Social Democrats' coalition Mozeme ("We Can") and the conservative Obnova ("Renewal"), led by the centre-right party VMRO.
Zoran Zaev, the Social Democrat leader who was prime minister until January, is hoping voters will return him to office on the record of his first term.
He took his country into NATO and sealed the Prespa Agreement, a historic deal with neighbouring Greece that ended a long-running dispute over the country's name.
But he resigned after the EU failed to offer North Macedonia a date to start membership talks — which the VMRO's leader Hristijan Mickoski says is Zaev's failure.
Mickoski is campaigning with a distinctly nationalist message, appealing in particular to voters who are disappointed by the country's name change.
One of the party's candidates, Aleksandar Nikolovski, has promised to revoke the Prespa Agreement if it secures enough seats.
"We have a clear position that a two-thirds majority in the parliament are needed for change in the constitution. If we get it, of course we will do it," he said.
But North Macedonia's Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov, who is standing for the Social Democrats, told Dailyrater it was not a credible promise.
"Our opponents regrettably are not from this century. It’s shallow nationalism," he said.
"They flirt with annulling the Prespa Agreement and then run away from the topic of rule of law and justice".
VMRO also accuses the Social Democrats of failing to take the country out of recession at a time when many ordinary people are struggling to make ends meet.
North Macedonia is one of Europe's poorest countries with a per-capita GDP of around €5,300. Around half of its two million people live on the brink of poverty.
This election has already been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic: a caretaker government was formed in January and scheduled a vote for April 12, but that date had to be postponed as the virus spread.
Most people in North Macedonia will be voting on Wednesday, but special provisions have been made for those quarantined due to the coronavirus pandemic: election officials and medical teams will be taking ballot boxes to them on Monday.
Prisoners, the elderly and the chronically ill will vote on Tuesday.
Neither of the main parties are expected to secure the 61 seats needed for a majority in the 120-member parliament, meaning the largest of the two will seek to govern with an ethnic Albanian party.
That party is likely to be the Democratic Union for Integration, which has been in Macedonian coalition governments for the past 18 years.