Turnout, ethnic Albanian vote key in North Macedonian polls

Turnout, ethnic Albanian vote key in North Macedonian polls
Campaign posters of Gordana Siljanovska Davkova, left, a candidate for the opposition conservative VMRO-DPMNE party, which reads in Macedonian: "Justice for Macedonia" and a poster of Stevo Pendarovski, right, a presidential candidate of the ruling coalition led by the Social Democrats, that reads in Macedonian: "Together Forward", are placed in a street in Skopje, North Macedonia, Friday, May 3, 2019. Voters in newly-renamed North Macedonia will choose the country's new president Sunday, in tightly-contested polls that could see the ethnic Albanian minority playing a major role. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

SKOPJE, North Macedonia (AP) — Voters in newly renamed North Macedonia will choose the country’s new president Sunday in tightly contested polls that could see the ethnic Albanian minority playing a major role.

Although the president has a largely ceremonial position, with some powers to veto legislation, the outcome of the vote could trigger early parliamentary elections in a country deeply polarized between the governing Social Democrats and the opposition VMRO-DPMNE conservatives.

But the key concern is turnout: If less than 40% of the 1.8 million registered voters participate, the election will be invalid, and repeated from scratch in two rounds. In the April 21 first round of voting, turnout was just 41.8%.

That first round saw Social Democrat candidate Stevo Pendarovski and the VMRO’s Gordana Siljanovska Davkova — the first woman to run for president in the country — tied with about 41% of the vote each.

So a lot depends on how — and indeed whether — the ethnic Albanians who make up about a quarter of the 2.1 million population will vote.

Ethnic Albanian candidate Blerim Reka garnered 10.6% in the first round, believed to represent about 70,000 minority votes. With Reka now eliminated and refusing to endorse either of Sunday’s candidates, it is unclear whether ethnic Albanians will even go to the polls.

Pendarovski, 56, and Siljanovska Davkova, 63 — both professors of law — have urged a strong turnout.

Political analyst Aleksandar Krzalovski from the Macedonian Center for International Cooperation said turnout will probably exceed the required 40% because the race is so close.

“(This) has created a competitive atmosphere,” he said.

The campaign has mostly focused on this year’s name deal with neighboring Greece, which will allow North Macedonia, previously known as Macedonia, to join NATO and, potentially, the European Union. The agreement, which ended a nearly 30-year dispute, has deeply divided North Macedonia and its two main parties.

Pendarovski supports the deal but his opponent has hinted that if elected she will challenge it at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has said he will call early elections if Pendarovski is not elected president.

Outgoing President Gjorge Ivanov is serving his second and final five-year term that ends on May 12.

More than 3,000 domestic and about 420 international observers will monitor Sunday’s election.