Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has urged parliament to “confirm the will of the majority” after “more than 90 percent” of referendum voters agreed to change the country’s name.
However, the leader of Macedonia’s main opposition party, Hristijan Mickovski, slammed the government and Zaev for what he called a “deeply unsuccessful referendum” on Sunday which was marred by low turnout of 36.8 percent.
A referendum on changing the nation of Macedonia’s name to North Macedonia to pave the way for NATO membership attracted tepid voter participation in a blow to the prime minister who had negotiated the deal and hoped for a strong message of support.
The non-binding referendum now needs to be ratified by a two-thirds majority in the 120-member parliament for required constitutional amendments. If it fails, he said he would have no other choice than to call an early election for late November.
But opponents of the deal with Greece, who say it undermines national interests and had advocated for a boycott of the referendum, seized on the low turnout to interpret the result as a clear rejection of the agreement.
“Macedonia has spoken today – Macedonia said – the deal is off. We have seen a deeply unsuccessful referendum,” said VMRO-DMPNE President Hristijan Mickovski.
Results from 58 percent of polling stations showed 90.8 percent voter approval for the name change. But election officials reported that as of 6:30pm local time (16:30 GMT), half an hour before polls closed, the turnout stood at 34 percent, based on data from 85 percent of polling stations.
Macedonia’s pro-Western government has urged the public to back the name change to Republic of North Macedonia, to resolve a decades-old dispute with Greece, which had blocked Macedonia’s membership bids for the European Union and NATO. Opponents of the change had called for a boycott of the vote.
The question on the referendum ballot was: “Are you for NATO and EU membership with acceptance of the agreement with Greece?”
The referendum was not binding, but a “yes” majority would have given parliament a political mandate to change the Constitution.
Maja Blazevska, an Al Jazeera correspondent reporting from Skopje, said the “outcome is showing that Macedonia is a very deeply divided society”.
The idea of changing the country’s name is “a very emotional question”, especially for ethnic Macedonians, she said.
A failure to reach the 50 percent threshold could “postpone the plans for implementation” of the agreement with Greece, Blazevska concluded.
Political analyst Petar Arsovski said that the referendum’s outcome would deepen divisions in Macedonia.
“Unfortunately, as opposed to providing closure, the referendum still leaves the country in turmoil,” Arsovski said, noting that on the one hand an overwhelming majority of those who voted approved of the deal, but turnout was low.
“I think it would be very difficult for the prime minister to reach the deal with the opposition lawmakers over the constitutional changes and to continue with the next phase,” Arsovski said. “I think Macedonia is entering into uncertainty and that the crisis will deepen.”
Macedonia’s international partners called for parliamentary support for the deal.
“We urge leaders to rise above partisan politics and seize this historic opportunity to secure a brighter future for the country as a full participant in Western institutions,” US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg urged the country’s politicians “to engage constructively and responsibly to seize this historic opportunity”.
He said on Twitter that NATO’s door was still open to Macedonia “but all national procedures have to be completed”.
I welcome the yes vote in 🇲🇰 referendum. I urge all political leaders & parties to engage constructively & responsibly to seize this historic opportunity. #NATO’s door is open, but all national procedures have to be completed.
— Jens Stoltenberg (@jensstoltenberg) September 30, 2018
Even if Zaev manages to win parliamentary support for the constitutional amendments, the deal faces other hurdles before it can be finalized.
Once Macedonia amends its constitution to ensure it doesn’t contain anything that could be considered irredentist against Greece, the deal must be ratified by Greek parliament.
But Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras faces problems of his own. His governing coalition partner, the right-wing Independent Greeks, oppose the deal and have vowed to vote against it, leaving him reliant on opposition support.