Amid COVID-19 Spike, North Macedonia Holds National Elections

Αssociated Press

The leader of the ruling SDSM party Zoran Zaev casts his ballot for the parliamentary elections in a polling station in the southeastern town of Strumica, North Macedonia on Wednesday, July 15, 2020. (AP Photo)

SKOPJE, North Macedonia  — Voters in North Macedonia are donning masks to take part in a general election Wednesday, following months of delays due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Polls are staying open later to encourage turnout, and authorities also scheduled two days of advance voting to allow people in quarantine or at greater risk from the virus to cast their ballots from home. 

North Macedonia, a former Yugoslav republic with a population of around 2 million, has reported more than 8,200 confirmed cases, including 385 deaths. The small country north of Greece saw new cases rise in recent weeks after infection-control restrictions were lifted. 

Despite concern of a low voter participation, election authorities said turnout reached 15.5% six hours after polls opened, which is similar to previous elections. 

Zoran Zaev's governing Social Democrats called the early parliamentary election when he resigned as prime minister in January after the European Union failed to give North Macedonia a start date for EU membership talks. 

Zaev is facing a strong challenge from Hristijan Mickoski of the center-right VMRO-DPMNE. The party has softened its earlier opposition to a landmark 2018 deal with Greece that saw the country change its name from Macedonia to North Macedonia, clearing objections for it to join NATO earlier this year. 

Zaev, 45, ran much of his campaign on the accomplishment of securing the agreement with Greece that ended a dispute of nearly 30 years. . 

"I believe our positive campaign has won over citizens," Zaev said after voting. 

North Macedonia has had a caretaker government since his resignation as prime minister in January. 

Election campaigns were limited by social distancing rules and calmer than in past elections, which produced vitriolic animosity between the two main parties. 

The Social Democrats have governed since 2016 after beating populist conservative Nikola Gruevski of VMRO-DPMNE, who fled to Hungary to avoid serving a two-year jail sentence for abuse of power and corruption.

Gruevski's successor, Hristijan Mickoski, moved the party toward the center-right but aimed his campaign at voters are still disappointed by the country's name change.

"People are going to the polls in large numbers from what we can see," Mickoski said. "They are ready for a big change." 

Opinion polls suggest no party will achieve an outright victory Wednesday, leaving the winner to seek a power-sharing deal with parties representing the country's large ethnic Albanian minority. 

The election is being monitored by a team of international observers and final results are expected Thursday.