North Macedonia's pro-West candidate claims presidential victory

The country is split over its deal with Greece to change its name

 tevo Pendarovski celebrates with supporters after declaring election victory in Skopje, North Macedonia. EPA
 tevo Pendarovski celebrates with supporters after declaring election victory in Skopje, North Macedonia. EPA

North Macedonia's pro-West candidate announced a victory over his nationalist-backed rival in a tight presidential run-off on Sunday, giving a boost to a government that had divided the public by changing the country's name.

The ruling Social Democrats' candidate, Stevo Pendarovski, captured 51.7 per cent of the vote, with nearly all of the ballots counted, the state electoral commission said.

His rival Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, a law professor backed by the right-wing opposition, was about 60,000 votes behind with 44.6 per cent, the commission said.

"I will be a president for all of the citizens, no matter who they voted for," Mr Pendarovski told a crowd that chanted "Stevo, Stevo," at the ruling party's headquarters, where music and dance erupted after his win.

A political science professor who is co-ordinating the country's efforts to join Nato, Mr Pendarovski has been championing the government's name deal with Greece.

The accord, which was finalised this year and added "North" to Macedonia, ended a decades-old identity dispute with Athens that was blocking Skopje's EU and Nato ambitions.

But it angered segments of the public who felt the move sacrificed the Balkan state's identity.

Ms Siljanovska-Davkova was also critical of the deal. In a speech after the election she conceded that the numbers were "pointing to a defeat".

Mr Pendarovski's win helps to steady the course of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev's government. Mr Zaev is hoping the name change will be rewarded with a start of EU accession talks in June.

The government also breathed a sigh of relief on Sunday after turnout passed the 40 per cent threshold required to make the poll valid.

About 46 per cent of 1.8 million eligible voters cast ballots, the commission said.

While the presidency is a largely ceremonial role, the office can exercise some veto powers.

The departing president, opposition-backed Gjorge Ivanov, has been refusing to sign bills in protest against the name change.

Mr Pendarovki's win is a "firm forward for the European integrations", analyst Albert Musliu said.

But Mr Musliu said it should also give the government a push to "finally take seriously their own promises" on reforms, such as cleaning up bureaucracy and cracking down on corruption.

Earlier on Sunday, after casting his ballot, Mr Pendarovski said he expected voters to rally around his call for a "unified North Macedonia, with all ethnic communities being equal to each other".

The country is home to a large ethnic Albanian population, who form up to a quarter of the population.

Mr Pendarovski performed well in Albanian districts on Sunday after their candidate had fallen out of the race in the first round of voting last month.

But despite calls for unification, the close race captured a deep fault line in the Balkan country.

There is a large part of society that snubbed the polls, reflecting disillusionment with a governing class that has failed to turn around a stagnant economy.

Low wages, high unemployment and wide corruption have been gnawing away at public faith in politics for years.

Huge numbers of young people have left the country in recent years, sowing concerns of a "brain drain".

Updated: May 6, 2019 08:44 AM

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