BERLIN — The first general election in North Macedonia since the country changed its name and resolved a longstanding dispute with neighboring Greece has ended with no clear winner, leaving the country’s future diplomatic trajectory in the balance.
The center-left Social Democrats emerged as the strongest party, taking 36.3 percent of the vote with nearly 90 percent of ballots counted. That leaves the party several seats short of the 61 it needs to form a majority in the 120-seat Parliament, and facing several days of tense coalition talks with smaller parties.
The Social Democrats’ closest rival, the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE, won about 34.9 percent, meaning that it could still gain power with the support of smaller parties representing the country’s ethnic Albanian minority.
”It’s still on the precipice,” said Petar Arsovski, a political analyst and polling expert based in North Macedonia.
The muddy result reflects the ambivalence many Macedonians feel toward Zoran Zaev, the Social Democrats’ leader.
As prime minister, he angered some voters by changing the country’s name and by what they saw as foot-dragging on an overhaul of the judicial system. But Mr. Zaev did raise wages, led North Macedonia into NATO and cleared the way for its European Union application by settling longstanding disputes with Greece and Bulgaria.
While Mr. Zaev’s nationalist opponents support the country’s membership in NATO and its E.U. application, they also want to revisit aspects of the deals with Greece and Bulgaria.
That would be likely to cause a diplomatic row, raising the risk that Greece and Bulgaria, both E.U. members, could hinder North Macedonia’s application. It could also distract international mediators from addressing other tensions in the Balkans, like the still unresolved dispute between Kosovo and Serbia.
While Mr. Zaev has been praised as a statesman outside the country, within North Macedonia he divides opinion, partly because of a step his government took to end its diplomatic isolation: adding the word “North” to the country’s name, a move that reassured Greece that its neighbor no longer harbored any secret claims over the Greek region also named Macedonia.
That decision left many in the small Balkan nation feeling their identity had been erased. Many also resented the way Mr. Zaev pushed the amendment through Parliament, despite a majority of citizens boycotting a referendum on the subject.
Mr. Zaev entered office in 2017 after a government led by VMRO-DPMNE collapsed amid a series of protests against corruption, judicial interference and government surveillance. His predecessor, Nikola Gruevski, later fled the country to escape corruption charges.
Mr. Zaev resigned from the premiership in January to allow a caretaker government to oversee the election campaign.
The quality of democracy in North Macedonia improved slightly during Mr. Zaev’s tenure, according to annual ratings issued by Freedom House, a Washington-based rights watchdog, but his critics believe he has not done enough to strengthen the judiciary or to combat corruption.
Just over half of voters turned out, about 15 percentage points less than in 2016, partly because of fears over the spread of the coronavirus, analysts said.
The election was initially scheduled for April but was postponed to avoid the peak of the pandemic. The election authority delayed the announcement of initial results because of problems with its website, which the authority attributed to a possible hacking attack.
Alisa Dogramadzieva contributed reporting.