North Macedonia nationalists seek coalition partner after election win

By Aleksandar Vasovic

SKOPJE (Reuters) - North Macedonia's nationalist opposition began the search for a coalition partner on Thursday after voters frustrated by a lack of progress towards membership of the European Union ended seven years of rule by the Social Democrats.

The VMRO-DPMNE party won more than 42% of votes with nearly all ballots counted from Wednesday's parliamentary election, giving them 58 seats in the 120-seat parliament, versus 15% for the Social Democrats (SDSM).

In a run-off for the more ceremonial role of president, Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, a university professor who was backed by the VMRO-DPMNE, beat the SDSM-backed incumbent Stevo Pendarovski in a landslide to become the first country's female head of state.

The swing from left to right in the Balkan state of 2 million people was fuelled by voter anger at slow development and persistent corruption which have held up its 2005 bid to join the European Union.

VMRO-DPMNE held power until 2017 before being ousted over alleged corruption and some voters expressed concern that its nationalist leanings could harm relations with EU neighbours Greece and Bulgaria and its EU bid.

In 2001, NATO pulled North Macedonia back from the brink of civil war during an ethnic Albanian insurgency and promised faster integration into the EU and NATO. The country joined NATO in 2020.

Albanians account for about a quarter of the population and Albanian parties have been in most coalition governments since North Macedonia was formed when Yugoslavia broke up in 1991.

The Albanian alliance VLEN/VREDI, which secured 11% of the vote, is one possible partner for the nationalists, and the ZNAM, a ethnic Macedonian splinter from the SDSM which received 5.5% of votes or 6 seats, is another. Talks are expected in coming days.

"This was an epic victory for the VMRO-DPMNE," said Petar Arsovski, a Skopje-based analyst. "Relatively soon we will see contours of the new government."

The ruling SDMS party conceded defeat late on Wednesday as the gap in votes announced by the election commission became clear, triggering celebrations outside the opposition headquarters during a rainstorm.

(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic in SKOPJE; additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci in TETOVO; Editing by Edward McAllister and Philippa Fletcher)