Less than half of Macedonia's electorate turned out to vote on whether their country's name should be changed as part of a deal with Greece. That hasn't fazed the prime minister, who's vowed to push ahead with the plan.
Despite low voter turnout, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has declared Sunday's referendum on changing the country's name to North Macedonia a "democratic success."
Electoral officials said more than 90 percent backed the renaming deal, but only around 35 percent of the electorate cast ballots — well short of the 50 percent threshold needed to make a poll legally valid.
However, the referendum was neither legally binding, nor was it required under the so-called Prespa agreement with Greece on changing the country's name
In a press conference after polling closed, Zaev didn't mention the turnout, but said he would seek Parliament's support to amend the constitution and get the bilateral deal ratified. Zaev added he would immediately call an early election if the amendments fail to get the required two-thirds backing.
Taking Macedonia West
Citing preliminary results that showed more than 90 percent of those who voted supported the deal, Zaev told AFP it was now "parliament's turn to confirm the will of the majority."
"I am determined to take Macedonia into the European Union and NATO."
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras praised Zaev's "toughness and determination" to push through the deal.
Zaev struck the deal with Greece's government in June in a bid to end a decades-old spat between the two countries. Greece has accused its northern neighbor of stealing the historic legacy — and even territory — of its northernmost province, also called Macedonia.
The rift resulted in Greece's blocking Macedonia from joining NATO and the European Union. Under the deal, Greece would drop its complaints.
NATO head Jens Stoltenberg hailed the support for Macedonia name change, seeing at as a historic chance to end a decades-long spat with Greece.
"I urge all political leaders and parties to engage constructively and responsibly to seize this historic opportunity," Stoltenberg said on his Twitter account. "NATO's door is open," he added.
The EU also encouraged all sides to respect the result of the referendum.
"I now expect all political leaders to respect this decision and take it forward with utmost responsibility and unity across party lines," EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn said in a statement.
US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert urged Macedonian lawmakers "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 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," Nauert said.
Opposition hails referendum flop
Critics of the pact, including President Gjorge Ivanov, had called for Sunday's vote to be boycotted. Referendum opponents celebrated the weak turnout, chanting "Macedonia" outside Parliament in the capital, Skopje.
Hristijan Mickoski, head of the opposition VMRO party, said the referendum had failed. "The fact is that the agreement with Greece did not receive a green light," he said. "This today is a defeat not only for the agreement with Greece, but for the crime of those who are in power."
Thus far, Zaev and his coalition partners from the ethnic Albanian minority have pledges of support from about 70 lawmakers to get the deal ratified. That means they would need backing from about a dozen MPs from the VMRO in order to secure the required two-thirds majority.
If the amendments are approved in Macedonia, the deal would then need to be approved by Greece.
law,nm/aw (Reuters, AP, dpa)