North Macedonia's opposition surges with strong presidential vote lead

By Aleksandar Vasovic and Fatos Bytyci

SKOPJE (Reuters) -A strong showing by North Macedonia's right-wing opposition in the first round of presidential elections bodes well for them in next month's parliamentary poll after voters showed the depth of their discontent for the ruling Social Democrats, analysts said.

Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova of the VMRO-DPMNE won 40.08% of votes in Wednesday's vote, far ahead of incumbent Stevo Pendarovski, who has the support of the ruling Social Democratic party and secured 19.93%, the State Election Commission said after nearly all ballots were counted.

The vote for the largely ceremonial presidency was widely seen as a litmus test for next month's parliamentary election.

It was the first concrete sign of an upswell in frustration towards the ruling party which has struggled to advance the small Balkan country's accession to the European Union, or to increase economic development and stamp out corruption.

"For the parliamentary vote, there will be an even greater difference. I think this is good for the future because we pensioners are not happy with this government," said Azim Zovens, 74, a pensioner in the capital Skopje.

While Siljanovska-Davkova could not secure the more than 50% needed to avoid a runoff on May 8, the lawyer and university professor's tally was double that predicted in opinion polls.

"This is incredibly inspirational for me," Siljanovska-Davkova, 70, told jubilant supporters late on Wednesday.

The Social Democrats acknowledged the setback.

"We made mistakes and the people said what they had about that," party leader Dimitar Kovacevski told supporters.


North Macedonia's candidacy to join the EU was met with optimism in 2005. However, nearly two decades later, it has made little progress, in part because of opposition from neighbouring Greece and Bulgaria, both EU members.

Pendarovski, 61, described Wednesday's result as a defeat for pro-European forces but said he would keep campaigning for the runoff.

A 2017 agreement to change the country's name from Macedonia to North Macedonia ended its dispute with Greece, but Bulgaria lodged a veto in 2020 over history and language issues, which many North Macedonians say challenges their national identity.

Analysts doubted if VMRO-DPMNE would make a difference, given they have historically held a harder line with Bulgaria than the current government.

"The talks with Bulgaria are effectively stalled... The VMRO-DPMNE will acknowledge that status quo and will perhaps introduce a sort of moratorium (on talks) until it finds a way to resume them," said analyst Goran Georgiev.

In 2001, the Western NATO alliance pulled North Macedonia back from the brink of civil war during an ethnic Albanian insurgency, and the country was promised faster integration into both the EU and NATO. North Macedonia joined NATO in 2020.

(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic and Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Edward McAllister and Gareth Jones)