Voters in North Macedonia had another chance to give an opinion on their country's new name as they cast ballots in a presidential election. Three university professors were vying for the largely ceremonial presidency.

A man and a child cast a ballot for the presidential elections at a polling station in Skopje, North Macedonia, April 21, 2019.
A man and a child cast a ballot for the presidential elections at a polling station in Skopje, North Macedonia, April 21, 2019. (Reuters)

North Macedonians were voting for a new president Sunday in the country's first election since changing its name, but there were fears that low turnout would render the poll invalid.

By mid-afternoon the turnout stood at 29 percent. The vote needs more than 40 percent turnout for a decisive result.

The state electoral commission reported turnout of 39.7% half an hour before voting ended.

The vote for the largely ceremonial post comes less than three months after a deal with Athens on the name change came into force, ending a decades-long identity dispute between the neighbours.

Candidates are Stevo Pendarovski, backed by the ruling leftwing government, Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova of the rightwing opposition and Belrim Reka from the country's ethnic Albanian minority.

Gjorge Ivanov, the outgoing nationalist president, cannot run again, having served the maximum two terms.

Polls closed, as expected, at 7 pm local (1700 GMT). 

TRT World's Abdulvehab Ejupi has more.

"I came to vote out of a sense of duty, but I don't think there is any point," said Pavlina Gosheva, a 53-year old nurse from Skopje. "For us ordinary mortals it won't change anything."

Many voters are disillusioned with what they see as a corrupt political system and some observers say the vote could fail to attract sufficient numbers.

A referendum backed the country's name change to North Macedonia last September, but the result was undermined by turnout failing to reach 40 percent.

Since it was only consultative, the government and parliament were free to go ahead with the historic name change anyway to settle a decades-old dispute with neighbouring Greece which will now no longer stand in the way of their EU or NATO membership applications.

Economic concerns

But while the deal was welcomed in the European Union, many of the country's 1.8 million voters are more concerned with bread-and-butter issues such as jobs and earnings.

"I don't care about the candidates," said Jovan Dimitrovski, a 37-year-old IT engineer. "What counts for me is the economy but I don't see much coming our way."

The unemployment rate is running at more than 20 percent, the average monthly wage is stuck at around $450 (400 euros) and many people have emigrated, demoralised by what they see as a lack of opportunities for people without the right connections.

'Desperate' 

Ljupco Nikovski, a 58-year-old police officer, said he was backing the opposition right-wing VMRO-DPMNE.

Nikovski said he had "never felt so desperate".

Emilija Stojanoska, 49, said her protests against the previous right-wing administration had not achieved anything.

The arrival of the Social Democrats in power with the backing of the country's ethnic Albanian parties had changed nothing, she said.

If a low turnout forces a re-run of the vote, it may trigger a fresh political crisis that would put pressure on Prime Minister Zoran Zaev's administration.

"Voting is an honour, a right and a civic duty," Zaev said.

He earlier talked down the risks of a low turnout, but also set out possible solutions to such a scenario.

They include a re-run of the election, doing away with the 40-percent minimum threshold, or even giving parliament the power to appoint a president.

Nazim Rashidi, senior editor of the Albanian-language channel TV Alsat, said none of those proposals addressed the real problem.

"The apathy ... in particular that of young people, Macedonian and Albanians, is immense."

Politicians had failed to tackle unemployment, widespread corruption and nepotism or to launch much-needed judicial reforms, he added.

"A growing number think that their vote will not bring about significant change," law professor Dragan Gocevski said.

Three university professors are vying for the largely ceremonial presidency post.

North Macedonia biggest opposition party VMRO-DPMNE presidential candidate Gordana Siljanovska Davkova, votes during the presidential elections in Skopje, North Macedonia, April 21, 2019.
North Macedonia biggest opposition party VMRO-DPMNE presidential candidate Gordana Siljanovska Davkova, votes during the presidential elections in Skopje, North Macedonia, April 21, 2019. (Reuters)

Gordana Siljanovska Davkova

Siljanovska is the first woman to run for president since the country declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

Known for her love of yoga and rock-and-roll, Siljanovska, a constitutional law professor, first emerged as a non-partisan candidate promoted by her university. Her nomination is now supported by the main conservative opposition VMRO-DPMNE party.

Siljanovska campaigned under the slogan "Justice for Macedonia, fatherland calls." 

She has been a vocal opponent of the deal with Greece that changed the country's name to North Macedonia in return for Athens dropping its objections to the country joining NATO.

Siljanovska served as minister without portfolio in 1992-1994 in the first government after independence and participated in writing the country's first constitution.

Ruling Social Democratic Union of Macedonia's candidate Stevo Pendarovski talks to the media after casting his vote for the presidential elections in Skopje, North Macedonia, April 21, 2019.
Ruling Social Democratic Union of Macedonia's candidate Stevo Pendarovski talks to the media after casting his vote for the presidential elections in Skopje, North Macedonia, April 21, 2019. (Reuters)

Stevo Pendarovski

A former national security adviser for two previous presidents and until recently national coordinator for NATO, this is Pendarovski's second bid for the presidency after being defeated by outgoing President Gjorge Ivanov in 2014.

Pendarovski is running as the joint candidate for both the governing social democrats and the junior governing coalition partner, the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration party.

His candidacy is also supported by 29 smaller political parties.

He is a strong defender of the name deal with Greece, arguing that it paved the way for the country to nearly finalize its NATO accession and led to hopes EU membership talks will begin in June.

His slogan "Forward Together" reflects his main campaign platform of unity, and he has made NATO and EU membership a key strategic goal, saying they will bring more foreign investment, will create jobs and higher wages and prevent young people leaving the country.

A man waits for a bus by an election poster of Blerim Reka, a candidate for two smaller ethnic Albanian opposition parties, with the inscription in Albanian reading
A man waits for a bus by an election poster of Blerim Reka, a candidate for two smaller ethnic Albanian opposition parties, with the inscription in Albanian reading "Reka for Republic", in a street in Skopje, North Macedonia, April 19, 2019. (AP)

Blerim Reka

A soft-spoken international law professor who headed the country's diplomatic mission to the EU from 2006-2010, the ethnic Albanian candidate was nominated by two small ethnic Albanian opposition parties, BESA and the Alliance of Albanians.

Reka chose "Reka for the Republic" as his campaign slogan, saying the concept of a "republic for all" is the most suitable for a multiethnic state. 

He has campaigned mainly in the larger ethnic Albanian communities. 

He advocates Northern Macedonia strengthen its multiethnic and multicultural characteristics, but insists the country must reform its "corrupt" administration and establish rule of law and an independent judiciary.

Reka also supports the name deal with Greece, saying the agreement ended a long-standing dispute and opened the doors for the country to join NATO and the EU.

No ethnic Albanian presidential candidate has ever made it to the second round of elections in the past. 

But the ethnic minority's votes, which make up about a quarter of the country's 2.1 million people, have proved crucial to the election of the president in the runoffs.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies