North Macedonia went to the polls on Wednesday in a tight parliamentary election where the winners will face a surging coronavirus outbreak and the start of talks to join the European Union.
It is the first parliamentary election since the Balkan country added “North” to its name early last year, ending a decades-old dispute with Greece.
The accord ushered the country into NATO and opened the door to the EU.
But critics are still bitter about conceding a part of their national identity to appease Greece, which claims exclusive rights to the name Macedonia for its own neighbouring region.
The election pits an architect of the deal, Social Democrats leader and former prime minister Zoran Zaev, against the deal’s harsh critics VMRO-DPMNE.
Neither is forecast to win an outright majority, setting the stage for complex coalition talks after the results, which are not expected until early Thursday.
The coronavirus pandemic has added another layer of uncertainty as authorities try to slow an infection spike without inflicting further damage on an economy already heading into recession.
With more than 380 deaths among a population of around two million, the country has the highest per capita fatality rate in the Western Balkans, according to official data.
Voters wore mandatory masks as they lined up at polling stations in the capital Skopje, which opened at 0500 GMT and will close at 1900 GMT.
The country has been run by caretaker cabinet since Zaev stepped down six months ago following the EU’s initial failure to start accession talks in exchange for the name-change and other reforms.
The bloc’s members later gave the greenlight in March, though the country is still waiting for a start date.
The snap poll was intitially scheduled for April, but the pandemic forced a postponement, extending the term of a caretaker cabinet that has struggled to manage the coronavirus crisis.
As a second surge of infections gains ground, health fears threaten to weaken turnout.
“We should have waited until this crisis had passed,” said Skopje resident Ostoja Garac.
Zaev has been trying to sell his success in moving the country closer to the West but the nationalist opposition accuses him of “treason” for the deal with Greece and another treaty with Bulgaria.
“Zoran Zaev for us Macedonians is really a nightmare, but for some of our neighbours he is a long awaited dream,” VMRO-DPMNE’s nationalist leader Hristijan Mickoski told a campaign rally.
Analysts say the party’s return to power could damage relations with its neighbours and complicate looming EU accession talks.
“A potential VMRO victory will negatively affect not only the EU path, but also the overall foreign policy of the country,” said Elena Stavrevska, a researcher with the London School of Economics.
And yet many voters are unsatisfied with the centre-left Social Democrats, amid a perception that “they have not delivered on some of the key promises, including justice reforms”, Stavrevska told AFP.
Meanwhile a traditional kingmaker party, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) which represents ethnic Albanians, is demanding their candidate be prime minister in exchange for an alliance.
Both Zaev — who has allied with another smaller ethnic Albanian party — and Mickoski have dismissed the demand as “blackmail”.
But it is not clear if either main party could secure a majority without DUI’s help.
“With a large part of the electorate likely not voting and many undecided, there are too many moving parts to be able to predict what election day will bring,” Stavrevska said.
On the horizon is a pandemic-triggered slowdown that will deepen woes in one of Europe’s poorest economies, where the average monthly salary is 420 euros ($477).
And many have already lost faith in the political class with both sides routinely accused of corruption.
“Bearing in mind that nothing has changed since I was born, I expect nothing (from the election),” said Stefan Micevski, a young person in the capital.