SKOPJE: Zoran Zaev (left), leader of the ruling SDSM party greets supporters during an election campaign rally in Skopje. — AFP

SKOPJE: North Macedonia heads to the polls tomorrow in its first parliamentary election since the country added “North” to its name to end a long-running row with Greece more than a year ago. Yet the campaign has instead been overshadowed by a second surge of coronavirus cases. Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev is hoping to renew his premiership but faces a stiff challenge from the right-wing opposition led by Hristijan Mickoski. The country’s third-largest party, which represents the ethnic Albanian minority and has played a traditional kingmaker role in previous elections, is also running a prime minister candidate. Here are the main players:

Zoran Zaev

Former prime minister and leader of the Social Democrats, Zoran Zaev hails from the eastern city of Strumica, where his family is one of the country’s top producers of ajvar, a red pepper relish beloved in the Balkans. He entered politics in 2003, eventually becoming a three-term mayor of his hometown and then leader of the Social Democrats in 2013. He rose to the top office in 2017 after helping oust the right-wing strongman Nikola Gruevski, who dominated North Macedonia for a decade until 2016.

But Zaev’s next challenge was even tougher, pushing through legislation to add “North” to the country’s name in order to end a decades-old argument with Greece, who claimed exclusive rights to the name Macedonia for its own province. The EU had promised to start membership talks with North Macedonia in exchange for the historic accord, a painful compromise for many in the Balkan state. So when the bloc failed to do so in October, a red-faced Zaev called a snap poll and stepped down. Several months later the EU finally gave the greenlight. Yet his party is still polling neck-and-neck with its right-wing rivals, VMRO-DPMNE.

Hristijan Mickoski 

A protege of former strongman Gruevski, who has since fled a corruption sentence and sought refuge in Hungary, Hristijan Mickoski is now chief of the exiled leader’s right-wing VMRO-DPMNE. As head of the opposition the 42-year-old has focused on lambasting the name-change deal with Greece as “treason” and accusing the Social Democrats of corruption.  Born in 1977 in the capital Skopje, Mickoski is a professor at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering in Skopje, a job and degree he received while working as an assistant to his father in the faculty, drawing accusations of nepotism.

Under the slogan “The renewal is coming”, he is hoping to win over voters who are still angry about the name-change and a separate deal with Bulgaria to work out their own tussles over history and heritage. But he has stopped short of threatening to repeal the name-change accord with Athens which ushered North Macedonia into NATO and has put it on path to EU membership talks. Out of politics for more than 10 years, Naser Ziberi has come back with a bang as the proposed prime minister candidate of the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI).

In power as a junior coalition partner for 16 of the past 18 years, DUI is the biggest of the country’s ethnic Albanian parties. A kingmaker in previous governments, this year DUI says it will condition any alliance on the agreement that Ziberi is made prime minister.  It is a demand which Ziberi himself dismissed before he was chosen as the candidate. The 59-year-old, who has spent the past decade working as a notary and giving analyst comments to the press, is now battling critics who accuse the party of “blackmail”.

The party is also accused of using the PM demand to focus the campaign on ethnic identity issues instead of its own history of corruption allegations. Albanians make up around a quarter of the two million population and have long complained of discrimination in the majority Macedonian society.  Born in Laskarci, near capital Skopje, Ziberi was a journalist for the Albanian language daily newspaper before becoming a member of parliament in 1990. In 1996 he left parliament to become minister of labour for two years, before returning to the assembly again from 1998 to 2002.- AFP