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North Macedonia's pro-Western candidate wins presidential vote

SKOPJE (Reuters) - North Macedonia’s pro-Western candidate, Stevo Pendarovski, won a run-off presidential vote after a campaign dominated by divisions over a change to the country’s name that was agreed to mollify Greece and open the way for EU and NATO membership.

Presidential candidate of the ruling SDSM Stevo Pendarovski celebrates after preliminary results during the presidential election in Skopje, North Macedonia May 5, 2019. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski

The State Election Commission results based on 99.5 percent the votes counted showed 51.7 percent of the votes going to Pendarovski, who is the candidate of the ruling coalition and a long-serving senior civil servant and academic.

His rival, the candidate of the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, got 44.7 percent of the votes.

The two finished neck-and-neck in the first round of voting two weeks ago. The victory puts more wind into the sails of the ruling coalition, which expects to get a date to start EU accession talks in June and become the 30th NATO member state next year.

“The victory of this concept brings a future for the republic of North Macedonia and it’s our ticket to Europe,” Pendarovski told reporters after the election results were announced.

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev congratulated Pendarovski and said, “As of today no one can stand in the way of progress. We showed we are ready for Europe.”

Johannes Hahn, the European Union Commissioner in charge of enlargement, also had warm words.

“North Macedonia can count on the EU’s continued support for its EU accession perspective, thus responding to the strong European aspirations of its people,” Hahn tweeted.

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Greece had for decades demanded that the tiny ex-Yugoslav republic change its name from Macedonia, arguing that it implied a territorial claim on a northern Greek province also called Macedonia. The new name was formally ratified earlier this year.

But the accord continues to divide North Macedonians and has eclipsed all other campaign issues.

In contrast to Pendarovski, Siljanovska-Davkova, a university professor, opposes the name change, although she is also pro-European Union. She has accused the government of dragging its feet on economic reforms.

VMRO-DPMNE accused the government of “engineering election,” adding it had information of the ruling coalition bribing voters and threatening them, among other things.

The president holds a largely ceremonial post in North Macedonia but he or she is the supreme commander of the armed forces and also signs off on parliamentary legislation.

The refusal of outgoing President Gjorge Ivanov, a nationalist, to sign some bills backed by parliament has delayed the implementation of key laws, including one on wider use of the Albanian language.

But Ivanov had no authority to block the constitutional amendments passed earlier this year by a two-thirds majority of parliament that enabled the name change to North Macedonia.

Turnout on Sunday was 46.6 percent, above the 40 percent threshold needed for the election result to be valid but still low, which analysts attributed to voters’ disappointment with a pace of reforms.

A Balkans expert at a University of Graz, Florian Bieber said the election result confirmed commitment to the name agreement with Greece.

“Now it’s time to advance rule of law and for the EU to give green light for accession talks,” he tweeted.

Once a part of Yugoslavia, the country peacefully seceded in 1991 but came close to civil war in 2001 when ethnic Albanians launched an armed insurgency seeking greater autonomy. NATO and EU diplomacy pulled it back from the brink of civil war.

Editing by Gareth Jones, Frances Kerry and Andrea Ricci