By Stefan J. Bos
A suspected hacking attack caused the website of the country's electoral commission to crash for hours after polls closed in the ballot Wednesday.
That delayed preliminary results. They eventually showed that the pro-Western Social Democrats narrowly beat the main conservative rival VMRO-DPMNE.
But the ruling Social Democrats only received 36 percent of the vote. That was just two percent more than the conservatives who insisted they could ultimately prevail in coalition negotiations and form a government.
Preliminary seat projections from the electoral commission gave the Social Democrats 46 seats in the 120-member parliament
- well short of the 61 needed to form a government. The conservatives gained a projected 44 seats.
That left the 45-year-old Social Democrats leader and former prime minister Zoran Zaev with complicated talks on creating a coalition cabinet. Zaev's discussions involve parties of the nation's ethnic Albanian minority, which comprises nearly a quarter of the country's 2.1 million population.
Relief for Greece
However complicated, his victory is a relief for neighboring Greece. Under Zaev’s leadership, Macedonia changed its name to North Macedonia. That ended a protracted dispute with Greece and cleared objections for North Macedonia to join the NATO military alliance earlier this year.
But it was not invited to join the European Union. That outraged Zaev, who resigned in January in protest prompting early elections.
North Macedonia and Albania were blocked by France, with support from the Netherlands and Denmark, in October 2019.
However, well-informed analyst Ioannis Armakolas of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy hasn't given up hope.
He says voters still trust Zaev to succeed in efforts to make North Macedonia an EU member state. "When it comes to Zoran Zaev, their record has been weak when it comes to domestic reforms so far. But they are a safer bet I would say to lead the country towards Brussels," Armakolas noted.
Fleeing to Hungary
Zaev's Social Democrats governed since 2016 after beating populist conservative Nikola Gruevski of the VMRO-DPMNE. He fled to Hungary to avoid serving a two-year jail sentence for abuse of power and corruption.
Gruevski's successor, Hristijan Mickoski, moved the party toward the center-right. But he aimed his campaign at voters that
are still disappointed by the country's name change.
Wednesday's ballot was held despite concerns over rising coronavirus cases. Vulnerable voters and those in quarantine at home could already vote in delivered ballot boxes on Monday and Tuesday. In contrast, other masks-wearing voters carefully entered voting booths on Wednesday.
North Macedonia, a former Yugoslav republic, reported more than 8,500 cases, including 393 deaths, among its 2.1 million population as of Wednesday, with nearly 200 new cases and four deaths reported over the previous 24 hours.
The country's authorities claim the nation saw new cases rise in recent weeks after infection-control restrictions were lifted.