SKOPJE, North Macedonia (AP) - Three candidates are vying for the presidency in North Macedonia, where voters go to the polls on Sunday for the first round of elections.
The post is largely ceremonial, but the election is seen as a key test of the government following deep polarization after the country changed its name to end a decades-old dispute with neighboring Greece over use of the term “Macedonia.”
Here is a look at the three candidates, all of whom are university professors:
Gordana Siljanovska Davkova, 63 - The first woman to run for president since the country declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Known for her love of yoga and rock-and-roll, Siljanovska, a constitutional law professor, first emerged as a non-partisan candidate promoted by her university. Her nomination is now supported by the main conservative opposition VMRO-DPMNE party.
Siljanovska campaigned under the slogan “Justice for Macedonia, fatherland calls.” She has been a vocal opponent of the deal with Greece that changed the country’s name to North Macedonia in return for Athens dropping its objections to the country joining NATO.
Siljanovska served as minister without portfolio in 1992-1994 in the first government after independence and participated in writing the country’s first constitution.
Stevo Pendarovski, 56 - A former national security adviser for two previous presidents and until recently national coordinator for NATO, this is Pendarovski’s second bid for the presidency after being defeated by outgoing President Gjorge Ivanov in 2014.
Pendarovski is running as the joint candidate for both the governing social democrats and the junior governing coalition partner, the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration party. His candidacy is also supported by 29 smaller political parties.
He is a strong defender of the name deal with Greece, arguing that it paved the way for the country to nearly finalize its NATO accession and led to hopes EU membership talks will begin in June.
His slogan “Forward Together” reflects his main campaign platform of unity, and he has made NATO and EU membership a key strategic goal, saying they will bring more foreign investment, will create jobs and higher wages and prevent young people leaving the country.
Blerim Reka, 58 - A soft-spoken international law professor who headed the country’s diplomatic mission to the EU from 2006-2010, the ethnic Albanian candidate was nominated by two small ethnic Albanian opposition parties, BESA and the Alliance of Albanians.
Reka chose “Reka for the Republic” as his campaign slogan, saying the concept of a “republic for all” is the most suitable for a multiethnic state. He has campaigned mainly in the larger ethnic Albanian communities. He advocates Northern Macedonia strengthen its multiethnic and multicultural characteristics, but insists the country must reform its “corrupt” administration and establish rule of law and an independent judiciary.
Reka also supports the name deal with Greece, saying the agreement ended a long-standing dispute and opened the doors for the country to join NATO and the EU.
No ethnic Albanian presidential candidate has ever made it to the second round of elections in the past. But the ethnic minority’s votes, which make up about a quarter of the country’s 2.1 million people, have proved crucial to the election of the president in the runoffs.
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