SKOPJE, North Macedonia — A pro-Western party in North Macedonia is poised to try to form a coalition government following a narrow election victory.
The Social Democrats led by former prime minister Zoran Zaev declared victory Thursday after receiving 36% of the vote with 94% of ballots counted, according to official results.
But main conservative rivals VMRO-DPMNE were less than two percentage points behind and insisted they could ultimately prevail in coalition negotiations and form a government.
The election involved two days of advance voting due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The state electoral commission suffered a website outage after polls closed in what officials described as suspected hacking attack. An official from the commission told The Associated Press the incident had been referred to the Interior Ministry for a potential police investigation.
Zaev, 45, led the country's effort to end a decades-long name dispute with neighbor Greece, clearing the way for the former Yugoslav republic to join NATO earlier this year.
Coalition talks will involve parties representing the country's ethnic Albanian minority which makes up nearly a quarter of the country's 2.1 million population.
Preliminary seat projections from the electoral commission gave Zaev's Social Democrats 46 seats in the 120-member parliament — well short of the 61 needed to form a government and leaving the former prime minister faced with complicated negotiations that could involve several smaller parties. The conservatives gained a projected 44 seats.
Surrounded by party officials wearing protective masks, Zaev told supporters at a post-election gathering: "You are winners, be proud. Progress has won." He promised to continue the country's push to join the European Union.
International observers are expected to announce the preliminary findings of their monitoring mission in North Macedonia later Thursday. The Party of European Socialists congratulated Zaev Thursday, along with Greece's former left-wing prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, who negotiated the landmark 2018 agreement that eased years of animosity between the two neighbors. Power-sharing negotiations are expected to last several weeks.