North Macedonia will go to the polls on Wednesday as coronavirus threatens to weaken turnout in the country’s first parliamentary election since it changed its name, joined Nato and secured the European Union’s agreement to begin accession talks.
The Balkan state formerly known as Macedonia agreed to the change in a 2018 deal with Greece – which has a region of the same name – prompting Athens to drop long-held objections to its neighbour’s bid for Nato and EU membership.
In March, the country of two million people became Nato’s 30th member and finally received a green light for EU accession negotiations, which could start this year.
The EU’s earlier delay in approving membership talks caused political upheaval in North Macedonia, however, prompting the resignation in January of a government led by the Social Democrats (SDSM) who had agreed the name change.
The SDSM is now fighting to regain power against the right-wing VMRO-DPMNE, which also supports the country’s integration with Nato and the EU but fiercely opposed a deal with Greece that it still regards as a national humiliation.
Surveys suggest that alliances led by both major parties will take about 20-25 per cent of votes, making a coalition government inevitable and placing the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) – the main representative of North Macedonia’s large ethnic Albanian minority – in the familiar position of kingmaker.
The DUI has been part of coalition governments for most of its 19-year history, but it has raised the stakes this year by pushing for one of its members to become premier under a campaign slogan that translates as “Why not?”
The next government is likely to be led, however, by former SDSM prime minister Zoran Zaev or VMRO-DPMNE chief Hristijan Mickoski, who have traded barbs during a campaign that has been overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic.
The election was postponed in April, but North Macedonia’s relative success in dealing with its initial outbreak has been undermined as lockdown restrictions have been eased ahead of the ballot.
The country reported a record one-day rise in new cases of 205 last Friday, and the total number of people infected in North Macedonia has now reached 8,197, of whom 385 have died – giving it the highest such per capita figures in the region.
Both main parties promise to fight the poverty and corruption that plague the country.
“We have proved that North Macedonia could be a friend with everybody, made smart deals that brought the country into Nato and enabled a green light for the start of accession talks with the EU,” Mr Zaev said during the campaign.
Mr Mickoski called the elections a chance to “decide on the future of our families” and “make our ancestors proud.”