Leader who changed North Macedonia's name fights to keep power in vote
By Aleksandar Vasovic and Kole Casule SKOPJE (Reuters) - North Macedonia voted on Wednesday in a parliamentary election that could decide the pace of its bid for EU membership, with nationalists vying to unseat the governing Social Democrats who changed the country's name to join Western institutions. The vote was originally scheduled for April but postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak
By Aleksandar Vasovic and Kole Casule
SKOPJE (Reuters) - North Macedonia voted on Wednesday in a parliamentary election that could decide the pace of its bid for EU membership, with nationalists vying to unseat the governing Social Democrats who changed the country's name to join Western institutions.
The vote was originally scheduled for April but postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak. Voters arrived at the polling stations wearing mandatory masks.
Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, in office since 2017, put the country on the path towards EU membership by agreeing to add "North" to its name.
That resolved a decades-old stand-off with Greece, which had viewed the name Macedonia as a claim on its province of the same name, and had blocked its neighbour's entry into both the EU and NATO. The newly renamed North Macedonia joined NATO this year.
The opposition VMRO-DPMNE of Hristijan Mickoski opposed the name change, and also accuses Zaev's Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) of corruption and cronyism, which they deny.
Opinion polls have indicated a tight race, with one showing a narrow lead for the SDSM and another a narrow lead for the VMRO-DPMNE. Both parties have polled below 25%, meaning the winning side is almost certain to require an alliance with other groups to form a majority.
"I believe ... we have succeeded in ... convincing the people that the coalition led by SDSM is the one that will get most support,” Zaev said after voting.
Mickovski said: "The people are ready for a big change that will happen today".
Parliament dissolved in February when Zaev resigned after the EU declined to set a date for membership negotiations. A month later the EU announced talks could begin. It again set no date, but diplomats said it would likely be later this year.
An SDSM victory would be seen as lending momentum to Skopje's membership talks with the EU.
Skopje political analyst Petar Arsovski said if VMRO-DPMNE were to win, 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.
(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic and Kole Casule; Writing by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Peter Graff)
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