SKOPJE -- The opposition VMRO-DPMNE party declared victory in the first round of the local elections in North Macedonia, claiming outright victories in at least 20 mayoral races, although official results have not yet been released.
As of October 17, the outcome in the mayor’s race in the capital, Skopje, is unclear, with a second round likely between SDSM incumbent Petre Silegov and independent candidate Danela Arsovska, who is backed by VMRO-DPMNE.
The second round is scheduled to take place on October 31.
VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski claimed victory in the battle for mayors in more than 20 municipalities and in the council races of at least 50 municipalities in the first round.
The ruling SDSM party of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said it was winning or leading in 36 mayor races. Zaev said he is confident his party will end up on top following the second round.
The overall results, if confirmed, would represent a drop in support for SDSM party, which held 57 mayoral posts following the 2017 local elections. VMRO-DPMNE had only five mayoralships heading into this vote.
Zaev’s government coalition partner, the party of Albanians DUI, claimed its candidates had won three mayor races. DUI also announced that it leads in several other municipalities where the majority of the population is ethnic-Albanians.
The opposition party of ethnic Albanians, the Alliance for Albanians and Alternative, said it had won two mayoral seats.
The State Election Commission announced that the turnout in the local elections was 49 percent. Final results are expected during the afternoon of October 18.
Posts in 90 municipalities, including the 10 that make up the capital Skopje, were up for grabs in the election.
Altogether, more than 11,000 candidates ran for local offices. They include about 300 mayoral candidates as well as 546 lists of candidates for municipal councils.
The four parties that form Zaev's governing coalition endorse liberal-democratic principles as well as integration into the European Union and NATO.
Those parties all ran candidates separately. Together, the four coalition parties controlled 70 municipal mayors’ offices going into the October 17 vote.
The SDSM's main coalition partner, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), is the largest ethnic Albanian party in the country and the country's third-largest political party. It currently controls 10 mayoral offices.
The other parties in the governing coalition are the right-leaning Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA), which holds two mayoral offices, and the Besa Movement, a center-right ethnic Albanian political party with one mayor in office.
The main rivals of the governing coalition are nationalist candidates from the opposition Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian Unity (VMRO-DPMNE).
The VMRO-DPMNE is the second-largest party in the country. Its members held five municipal mayoral offices going into the elections.
But the VMRO-DPMNE also ran in collaboration with the opposition Alliance for Albanians and the Alternative. Under their cooperative deal, only one opposition party fielded a candidate for mayor in some municipalities while the other has vowed to support them.
Political analysts say the growth of independent lists could test the strength of the main parties and bring a new dimension to municipal councils.
The vote on October 17 also marked the introduction of a new system and terminals that used fingerprints to identify voters.
Some voters and officials struggled with the new technology, causing delays and pushing authorities to keep polls open a half-hour longer than planned.