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SKOPJE — Right-wing opposition candidate Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova appeared headed for victory in a runoff presidential election, capturing more than 62 percent of votes with about 45 percent of ballots counted in the crucial election, which could dramatically shape the future of the small Balkan nation.

Siljanovska-Davkova, 70, who is supported by the nationalist opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, leads 61-year-old pro-Western incumbent Stevo Pendarovski, backed by the ruling Social Democrats (SDSM), in the May 8 vote made necessary when no candidate received a majority of votes in the first round for the largely ceremonial post.

Meanwhile, in a simultaneous but separate vote, the right-wing VMRO-DPMNE held a strong lead with 34 percent after 43 percent of ballots had been counted, initial results showed. The SDSM trailed with 12 percent.

Election officials said that about 30 minutes before polls closed, turnout was 46.31 percent in the presidential election, surpassing the required 40 percent level to make the vote valid. Turnout in the parliamentary election was 53.3 percent at the same time, officials said.

Aleksandar Dashtevski, chief of the State Election Commission, told a news conference late on May 8 that “we have had successful, fair, and democratic elections.”

“All citizens had equal voting rights [and] they voted based on their own free will,” he added.

The nationalist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) had appeared poised for a strong showing after years in opposition, with its preferred presidential candidate riding high after a surprisingly high tally in last month’s first round.

Political analyst Marko Tosanovski told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service that voters appear frustrated that the governing parties have been unable to pull the country out of economic doldrums, high inflation, and pervasive corruption.

“Failures occurred at several levels, but even more so because the citizens didn’t see a quick reaction to correcting these conditions,” Tosanovski said.

Pendarovski is the candidate of the ruling Social Democrats, who have kept the VMRO-DPMNE in opposition for the past seven years but appeared to be hurt by his perceived failure and that of his allies to tackle corruption and kick-start the economy.

Pendarovski has been an advocate of the country’s desire to join the EU. North Macedonia joined NATO in 2020.

Siljanovska-Davkova has criticized a pledge to institute a constitutional change establishing Bulgarians as a constitutive people in North Macedonia, but has acknowledged she won’t block it in the event that a two-thirds majority can be mustered to approve it.

In 2022, Skopje reluctantly bowed to Sofia’s demand for the change in order to convince Bulgaria to lift its veto on the start of North Macedonia’s framework negotiations with the European Union.

North Macedonia’s potential EU path, a sluggish economy, and corruption were major themes of the campaign.

World Bank forecasters say North Macedonia and its 2.4 million residents are likely to end 2024 as the worst economic performer and with the biggest budget deficit among the so-called Western Balkan Six, which also includes Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

VMRO-DPMNE officials appeared confident going into the double-bill voting that they have a realistic chance of governing alongside a like-minded president.

VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski said after Siljanovska-Davkova’s strong first-round result that “I wouldn’t be surprised if we have 61 MPs” in the currently 120-member parliament.

Former Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski, leader of the Social Democrats (SDSM), said after that vote that “It is clear that people have punished us, and we accepted that.”

The next government’s priorities are expected to grapple with the pledge to change the constitution to clear a path to opening chapters of North Macedonia’s full EU negotiations.

The VMRO-DPMNE campaigned on the idea that the EU negotiation framework can be changed.

Macedonians have had EU candidate status since 2005 but their accession efforts ran into a drawn-out name dispute with Greece, which was resolved in 2019. They also found themselves stalled by EU member Bulgaria’s veto, which is continuing despite the 2022 compromise requiring the amendment to the preamble of the Macedonian Constitution.

Siljanovska-Davkova has also said she will “respect” the name change that removed the Greek veto “but I will not use it,” a reference to the name North Macedonia that has since appeared in all official settings.

She told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service that if parliament — which has so far failed to amend the constitution in line with the “French compromise” involving Bulgarians — approves the constitutional amendment she will respect that decision.

A constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority that neither side appears likely to win, and the VMRO-DPMNE has consistently blocked the move.

With reporting by Reuters