Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has urged parliament to “confirm the will of the majority” after “more than 90 percent” of referendum voters agreed to change the country’s name.
However, leader of Macedonia’s main opposition party Hristijan Mickovski slammed the government and Zaev for what he called a “deeply unsuccessful referendum” on Sunday which was marred by low turnout.
A referendum on changing the nation of Macedonia’s name to North Macedonia to pave the way for NATO membership attracted tepid voter participation in a blow to the prime minister who negotiated the deal and hoped for a strong message of support.
The non-binding referendum needs to be ratified in parliament by a two-thirds majority.
“Macedonia has spoken today – Macedonia said – the deal is off. We have seen a deeply unsuccesful referendum,” said VMRO-DMPNE president Hristijan Mickovski.
Results from 58 per cent of polling stations showed 90.8 per cent voter approval for the name change. But election officials reported that as of 6:30 p.m. (1630 GMT), half an hour before polls closed, the turnout stood at 34 percent, based on data from 85 percent of polling stations.
Macedonia’s pro-Western government has urged the public to back the name change to Republic of North Macedonia, to resolve a decades-old dispute with Greece, which had blocked Macedonia’s membership bids for the European Union and NATO. Opponents of the change had called for a boycott of the vote.
The question on the referendum ballot was: “Are you for NATO and EU membership with acceptance of the agreement with Greece“.
The referendum was not binding, but a ‘yes’ majority would have given parliament a political mandate to change the constitution.
Maja Blazevska, an Al Jazeera correspondent reporting from Skopje, said the “outcome is showing that Macedonia is a very deeply divided society”.
The idea of changing the country’s name is “a very emotional question”, especially for ethnic Macedonians, she said.
A failure to reach the 50 percent threshold could “postpone the plans for implementation” of the agreement with Greece, Blazevska concluded.