Country name dispute haunts Macedonian presidential election

Macedonians vote in a presidential election on Sunday shaping up as an unofficial referendum on the hotly disputed change of the country’s name to North Macedonia under a deal with Greece. The country held an actual referendum on the issue last year but it was invalidated due to insufficient turnout. Skopje’s parliament later ratified the accord, which opened the door to Macedonian membership of the EU and NATO.

But the name change, which Greece demanded to end what it called an implied territorial claim on its northern province also called Macedonia, continues to polarize Macedonians and has eclipsed all other issues in the presidential election campaign.

A 24-metre-high bronze statue of Alexander the Great in Skopje’s main square casts the dispute in sharp relief. Plans to attach a new plaque to the statue saying it belongs to Hellenic culture was agreed as part of the deal but has angered many conservative Macedonians who say Alexander’s ancient heritage was Macedonian, not Greek.

“Society is deeply divided among those in favor and those against the agreement,” said political analyst Petar Arsovski, cited by Reuters. That extends to the two main presidential candidates, neither of whom are polling anywhere near a majority.

A recent poll put Stevo Pendarovski, backed by the ruling centrist coalition of the Social Democrats and the minority Albanian DUI party, who promise to implement the name change settlement, at 28.8% of the electorate. His main rival, Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, a university professor supported by the nationalist opposition VMRO-DPMNE party which fiercely opposed the deal, trailed with 26.8% of the votes, the poll found. Blerim Reka, the candidate of the second largest ethnic Albanian party Besa, is forecast to come third with around seven percent of the votes. Barring a majority winner on Sunday, a second round run-off will be held on May 5 to decide the contest.

The presidency of the ex-Yugoslav republic is a mostly ceremonial post, but acts as the supreme commander of the armed forces and also signs off on parliamentary legislation. The refusal of outgoing nationalist President Gjeorge Ivanov to sign some bills passed by parliament has delayed the implementation of some key laws, including one on wider use of the Albanian language - 18 years after an ethnic Albanian uprising that pushed Macedonia to the brink of civil war. But the presidency had no authority to block constitutional amendments that were passed by a two-thirds majority of parliament to enable the name change to North Macedonia.

The pro-Western government of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has said it hopes to hear from the EU in June when Skopje can start talks on membership, but that prospect is clouded by scepticism within the bloc about the wisdom of further enlargement. VMRO-DPMNE supporters also favor EU and NATO membership but say the name change deal, a key precondition for such progress, has undermined the country’s South Slav identity.

Analysts say turnout in Sunday’s vote could be low due to voter fatigue, dispute over voter lists and disappointment at the government’s failure to make good on promises to secure more foreign investment and reduce high unemployment.


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