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SKOPJE, North Macedonia – The first round of presidential elections in North Macedonia on Sunday is seen as a key test for the center-left government's survival in a society deeply divided by the country's name change to end a decades-old dispute with neighboring Greece.
The name change from just "Macedonia," which paves the way for the country to join NATO and the European Union, has been the main campaign issue, with one of the two front-runners vowing to challenge the agreement in the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Three university law professors, including one from the country's ethnic Albanian minority, are vying for the largely ceremonial post.
Skopje and Athens struck a deal last June for the former Yugoslav republic to change its name in exchange for Greece dropping its objections to the country joining NATO. The neighbors have been at odds over the issue since the country's independence in the early 1990s— Greece said use of the term "Macedonia" implied territorial aspirations on its own northern province of the same name and usurped its cultural and ancient heritage.
The deal has faced vociferous opposition in both countries, with critics accusing their respective governments of conceding too much.
Outgoing President Gjorge Ivanov, whose second and final five-year term ends on May 12, had tried to derail or delay the deal with Greece.
His opposition is echoed by Conservative VMRO-DPMNE party candidate Gordana Siljanovska Davkova, 63, who is the first woman to run for president in the country. She has argued the name change was a "painful and unconstitutional" move that did not enjoy popular support. She says the agreement with Greece has no legitimacy as a September referendum that approved it failed to produce a big enough turnout to be valid.
"Our victory would mean the defeat of (the government's) anti-Macedonian and anti-national policies," Siljanovska said.
Her rival, 56-year-old center-left Stevo Pendarovski, has fiercely defended the name change. Pendarovski, who was defeated by Ivanov in 2014 elections, is being supported by the governing social democrats and their junior government coalition partner, the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration.
"We have managed to throw the clutches of the (previous conservative) regime and now we are following the path of integration, economic development and overall social progress," Pendarovski said at a rally in the capital Skopje last weekend.
"We are now recognized as serious partner by the democratic world."
Blerim Reka, a candidate for two small ethnic Albanian opposition parties who is campaigning mainly in minority areas, also supports the name change for the NATO and EU accession prospects it opens up.
Recent opinion polls indicate Pendarovski is slightly ahead of Siljanovska. A survey by the Institute for Democracy Societas Civils put Pendarovski at 27.2% support, ahead of Siljanovska with 23.5% with Blerim Reka on 11%. It put the margin of error at 3.1%.
A candidate needs 50% plus one vote of the 1.8 million registered voters to win outright in the first round, which is considered highly unlikely. A runoff has been set for May 5.
The State Electoral Commission has said more than 3,000 domestic and about 420 international observers will monitor the election.