North Macedonia holds elections dominated by the country's path to EU membership and corruption

A girl casts the ballot of an adult during the parliamentary election and the presidential runoff, at a polling station in Skopje, North Macedonia, on Wednesday, May 8, 2024. Voters in North Macedonia go to the polls Wednesday for a double election — parliamentary and presidential — following a campaign in which the country's aspirations to join the European Union have played a central role. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)


SKOPJE, North Macedonia (AP) — Voters in North Macedonia were casting ballots on Wednesday in a parliamentary election and a presidential runoff dominated by issues including the country’s path toward European Union membership, corruption and the economy.

The first round of the election for president, a largely ceremonial post, was seen as a barometer for the parliamentary vote. It gave a clear lead to Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, the candidate backed by the center-right opposition, over incumbent Stevo Pendarovski, who is supported by the governing center-left coalition.

Siljanovska-Davkova garnered 41.2%, in the first round on April 24, compared to 20.5% for Pendarovski. The two had also squared off in the previous election in 2019, when Pendarovski won with nearly 54% of the vote. Turnout in the runoff must be at least 40% for the result to be valid.

In the parliamentary election, more than 1,700 candidates are vying for the 120 seats in the unicameral assembly. There are also three seats reserved for expatriates, but in the previous election in 2020, turnout was too low for them to be filled.

The monthlong campaign focused on North Macedonia’s progress toward joining the 27-nation EU, the rule of law, corruption, fighting poverty and tackling the country’s sluggish economy.

Skopje voter Atanas Lovacev expressed disappointment with the current government, but had low expectations from whoever comes next.

“Yes, (I expect changes), because the current government did nothing,” he said. “But I don’t expect anything either from the new government. … They all make promises, but the result is nothing.”

Opinion polls ahead of the vote had consistently shown the center-right opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, led by Hristijan Mickoski at the head of a 22-party coalition called “Your Macedonia,” with a double-digit lead over the coalition “For A European Future,” led by the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, or SDSM.

Mickoski urged voters to turn out and cast their ballots, saying that “only in this way can we decide on our common future.”

“Mass turnout is a vote and a decision for the future of our families and the future of our homeland,” he said after casting his own ballot in the capital.

SDSM leader Dimitar Kovachevski, who served as prime minister from 2022 until early this year, said Wednesday’s vote would “determine the future of the country for the next decade.”

“I expect the citizens to vote freely as befits a NATO member country and a country that has opened negotiations with the EU, and I expect them to make a decision that will ensure a secure and prosperous future,” he said.

Two coalitions in the running represent the country’s ethnic Albanian minority, which accounts for a quarter of North Macedonia’s population. They include the European Front, led by the Democratic Union of Integration (DUI), which has been the coalition partner of all governments of the past 20 years. But Mickoski wants to ally with the VLEN (Worth) four-party coalition, which has positioned itself to the right of DUI.

North Macedonia’s path to the EU is being blocked by neighboring Bulgaria, which demands that the constitution be amended to recognize a Bulgarian minority. And while the center-left has agreed to the demand, VMRO-DPMNE has denounced the government’s “capitulation (to) Bulgarian dictates.”

Just over 3,500 people out of nearly 1.84 million identified themselves as Bulgarians in North Macedonia’s latest census, in 2021.

North Macedonia has been a candidate to join the EU since 2005, but was blocked for years by neighboring Greece in a dispute over the country’s name. That was resolved in 2018, but Bulgaria is now the one blocking the process — it has said it will only lift its veto once the constitution is amended.

Skopje resident Gordana Gerasimovski said she was disappointed that the country had been waiting for so long to join the EU, but hoped there would now be real progress.

“We should have been part of European Union long time ago. This is what we are lacking, but we hope that the time will get us where we want to be for so long,” she said.

EU membership negotiations with North Macedonia — and fellow-candidate Albania — began in 2022 and the process is expected to take years.

Corruption is the other hot-button issue, with a European Commission report last year saying it “remains prevalent in many areas” of North Macedonia. In December, U.S. Ambassador Angela Aggeler said there was “an epidemic of corruption in this country that has affected every sector, every organization, and only by exposing the corrupt actors can we begin to help the country address these issues.”

Mickoski has accused the ruling SDSM and DUI of a “corruption pandemic.” Kovachevski has said he is “aware that people are not satisfied” and promised anti-corruption measures.

More than 2,300 domestic and international observers were scheduled to monitor the election, according to the State Electoral Commission. Preliminary results were expected early Thursday.