North Macedonia’s Social Democrats have secured a razor-thin parliamentary election victory over nationalist rivals, highlighting deep faultlines in a country preparing to start European Union membership talks.
Official election results showed on Thursday that the centre-left Social Democrats won only about 35.8 percent of the vote, which means they will face tough coalition talks that could drag on for weeks in order to form a government.
If the Social Democrats fail to form alliances, the right-wing VMRO-DPMNE, just behind with about 34.5 percent of the vote, would get a chance to build a government.
“Our path to progress is confirmed,” assured Social Democrat leader and former prime minister Zoran Zaev in a victory speech.
“The citizens went out and voted for a clear future, for unity and solidarity, for economic patriotism, for law and order and to choose a better present and a better future,” he said, adding that his camp had a three-seat advantage in the 120-member assembly.
At opposition headquarters, VMRO-DPMNE Secretary-General Igor Janusev insisted the vote still showed that “people want change”.
The Social Democrats’ top options for partners are parties representing the ethnic Albanian minority, who make up about a quarter of the two million population.
The Democratic Union for Integrity (DUI) was ranked third, with about 12 percent of the vote, followed by another rival Albanian camp with about 9 percent.
DUI, the traditional kingmaker, has this year demanded their candidate be named prime minister in exchange for an alliance.
Zaev and the leader of VMRO-DPMNE, Hristijan Mickoski, have previously shot down the proposal as “blackmail”.
The Wednesday vote was the first parliamentary election since the Social Democrats added “North” to the Balkan country’s name last year – a move that ended a decades-old dispute with Greece but was highly controversial at home.
The historic accord ushered the Balkan state into NATO and opened the door to future EU membership.
But critics are still bitter about conceding a part of their identity to appease Athens, which claimed exclusive rights to the name Macedonia for its own neighbouring region.
The elections were held to replace a caretaker government that took over after Zaev stepped down six months ago following the EU’s initial failure to open accession talks – a promise Brussels had made in exchange for the name change and other reforms.
The bloc later gave the green light in March, although Skopje is still waiting for a date to start formal negotiations.