North Macedonia: Social Democrats score narrow election win

International News
Zoran Zaev

The leader of the ruling SDSM party Zoran Zaev wearing a face mask celebrates his victory at the North Macedonia general election, in Skopje, early Tuesday, July 16, 2020. A suspected hacking attack caused the site of North Macedonia’s electoral commission to crash for hours after polls closed in the country’s national elections Wednesday, delaying preliminary results that showed the Social Democrats narrowly leading the center-right opposition.(AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

SKOPJE, North Macedonia (AP) — North Macedonia’s pro-Western Social Democrats said they were ready Thursday to start complicated power-sharing negotiations after winning a narrow election victory in a poll held up for months by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Former Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s Social Democrats declared victory 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 final results were held up for hours Thursday after the state electoral commission said it needed time to inspect some vote-counting procedures.

The commission also 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.

International observers, announcing the preliminary findings of their monitoring mission, described the election as being “well-managed.”

The election involved two days of advance voting due to the pandemic and follows a spike in cases. Authorities Thursday announced 94 new infections and eight deaths, raising the confirmed death toll to 401.

Zaev, 45, led the country’s effort to end a decades-long name dispute with neighboring 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. The main minority party, the DUI, says it wants an ethnic Albanian politician as prime minister as a condition for coalition talks — a demand that the two main parties have flatly rejected.

Political analyst Albert Musliu told the AP that power-sharing negotiations, which are expected to last several weeks, are likely to be complicated.

“We’ll have to wait for the final results because even a small difference between political parties could make essential changes to the upcoming negotiations,″ he said.

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.

The Party of European Socialists congratulated Zaev on 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.

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