Macedonia referendum gets 'yes' on low turnout

Macedonia's prime minister has vowed to press on with a vote in parliament to change the country's name despite failing to secure the 50% turnout at a referendum required to make it valid.

The referendum was held on whether to change the country's name to North Macedonia, as part of a deal agreed with Greece in June that would pave the way for NATO membership.

Results from more than 97% of polling stations showed 91.3% of voters favoured the name change compared to 5.7% opposed, according to the electoral commission.

But only a third of the 1.8 million-strong electorate voted, a far cry from the massive support the government had hoped for.

Opponents to the name change had called for a boycott of the vote and celebrated in the streets outside parliament in Skopje when the turnout figures were announced.

Macedonia's Prime Minister Zoran Zaev gives a press conference on the referendum to re-name Macedonia in Skopje
Image: Prime Minister Zoran Zaev had hoped for a strong show of support in the referendum

However, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev declared the vote a success and said he would seek to secure the required two-thirds majority of the 120-seat parliament by next week for the constitutional changes.

If he fails, he said, the only alternative would be to call early elections.

"The people made a great choice and said 'yes' to our future. It is time for lawmakers to follow the voice of the people and to provide support," he said.

"There will be no better agreement with Greece, nor an alternative for NATO and the EU."

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In Athens, the Greek foreign ministry noted the "contradictory" result of the vote and said careful moves were needed to "preserve the positive potential of the deal".

The dispute over Macedonia goes back to 1991
Image: Under the deal, Macedonia would change its name and Greece would drop its objections to the country joining NATO

In Washington, US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement: "The United States strongly supports the agreement's full implementation, which will allow Macedonia to take its rightful place in NATO and the EU, contributing to regional stability, security, and prosperity."

She urged Macedonian politicians "to rise above partisan politics and seize this historic opportunity to secure a brighter future for the country as a full participant in Western institutions".

The June agreement aims to resolve a dispute dating from Macedonia's declaration of independence from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

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Greece, arguing its new northern neighbour's name implied territorial ambitions on its own province of the same name, has blocked Macedonia's efforts to join NATO since then.

Under the deal, the former Yugoslav republic would amend its name to North Macedonia and Greece would drop its objections to the country joining the bloc.

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