Voting began Sunday in the North Macedonian presidential election which revisits the agreement with Greece over the former Yugoslav republic's name change in return for free passage to NATO membership and possible EU accession talks.

Surveys gave a small edge to the candidate for the governing Social Democrats (SDSM), Stevo Pendarovski, over the nationalist VMRO runner Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, a critic of the name deal.

Under the agreement, Skopje added ‘North’ to the country's name to differentiate itself from the ancient Greek province.

In return, Athens lifted obstacles to its neighbour's membership in international organizations, first of all NATO.

One recent survey gave Pendarovski, 55, 38 per cent to Siljanovska-Davkova's 33.

The third candidate is Blerim Reka, backed by two ethnic Albanian parties, who was projected to win 12.6 per cent of the ballots.

Since none of the two leading runners is expected to win more than 50 per cent of the ballots cast in Sunday's first round of voting, a run-off is probable on May 5.

The votes of ethnic Albanians, who are supportive of the agreement with Greece because it paves the way for North Macedonia to join NATO probably in 2020, could play the decisive role in the election. Albanians make up between 25 and 30 per cent of the electorate.

A win by Siljanovska-Davkova would bring continuity of the incumbent Gjorge Ivanov's policies. Ivanov, of the VMRO, has served two terms and could not run again.

He fiercely opposed the name change agreement and has delayed several laws related to it by refusing to sign them.

In the second round the turnout also becomes crucial, as 40 per cent of the 1.8 million voters must turn out for a valid result.

Many Macedonians are torn between anger at having to change their country's name and the desire to join NATO and EU, so a high rate of abstention is a possibility.

That was the case in the referendum on the name change in September, which fell far short of the required 50-per cent threshold: The turnout then was just 37 per cent.


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