SKOPJE, North Macedonia (AP) — A presidential election in North Macedonia that gave voters another chance to express an opinion on their country's new name will go to a runoff after turnout in the first round of voting Sunday was too low for a candidate to win outright, election officials said.
The May 5 runoff is inevitable because the small European country's election law requires a candidate to get 50% plus one of registered voters, not just voters who cast ballots for president, to be elected in the first round. The state electoral commission reported the turnout Sunday was 41.9%.
With about 97 percent of polling stations reporting results, Stevo Pendarovski and Gordana Siljanovska Davkova were in a close contest for the most support, the state electoral commission announced shortly before midnight (2300 GMT). Pendarovski, the joint candidate of the ruling Social Democrats and 30 other parties, held a slight lead from the unfinished tally, receiving 42.68% of the partial vote to Siljanovska's 42.55%.
The main conservative opposition VMRO-DPMNE party backed Siljanovska, the first woman to run for president in the country.
Blerim Reka, a candidate supported by two small ethnic Albanian political parties, had 10.4% in the latest returns. All three candidates the largely ceremonial presidency are university professors.
North Macedonia previously was known as Macedonia. The name change took effect in February as part of an agreement to end a decades-long dispute with Greece.
In exchange, Greece said it would stop blocking the former Yugoslav republic's path to membership in NATO and the European Union. Greece had opposed its young northern neighbor gaining international recognition, asserting sole rights to the Macedonia name.
Outgoing President Gjorge Ivanov, who couldn't seek re-election due to term limits, tried to derail or delay the deal with Greece that gave rise to the name change.
The deal emerged as the main campaign issue of the presidential contest. Siljanovska vowed to challenge the agreement in the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
She said that as a constitutional law professor, she would "respect" the deal but also "will do my best to show that some of the solutions are against Macedonia's Constitution and against...the norms of the United Nations."
Pendarovski told reporters after he voted in the capital of Skopje that he expects North Macedonia to become a full member of NATO and the EU. He said he is a strong supporter of the deal with Greece that "fully preserves the national interest of both countries."
Reka expressed hope that North Macedonia will "prove that is ready for the start of the accession talks with the European Union."
More than 3,000 domestic and about 420 international observers monitored the election. Domestic election observers said the election proceeded calmly, although villagers locked one voting station to protest a lack of road repairs.
North Macedonia's struggles include a stagnant economy, more than 20% unemployment and pervasive corruption. At least 400,000 people, most of them young, have left the country in the past decade.
Some residents hoped for something better. Voter Stefan Kocevski said he expected the election to bring "positivity and change."
"I expect the situation to change for us young people and also changes in the country, our living conditions to improve and to go forward toward European Union and NATO," Kocevski said.
--- By KONSTANTIN TESTORIDES Associated Press