Macedonia president hands opposition mandate to form govt

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SKOPJE: Macedonia’s president on Wednesday asked the long-time opposition Social Democratic party to form a government, five months after an election in the troubled Balkan country.
President Gjorge Ivanov handed the mandate to Social Democratic (SDSM) leader Zoran Zaev, who won the support of a parliamentary majority including ethnic Albanian parties.
The president had earlier refused to grant the SDSM a mandate, saying national unity would be undermined by the demands of Albanian groups.
But he came under international pressure to reverse his decision, particularly from the EU, which Macedonia aspires to join.
After a closed-door meeting with Zaev on Wednesday, Ivanov told reporters that “the SDSM has secured a majority and I formally grant a mandate to the party with the parliamentary majority.”
The move comes after two years of political turmoil in the country of around two million people, where violence erupted in parliament late last month.
An EU statement welcomed Wednesday’s development and expressed hope that this “constructive spirit” would “continue to prevail so that the country can finally come out of the political crisis.”
For a decade until last year, Macedonia was ruled by the conservative VMRO-DPMNE party of Nikola Gruevski, who is close to the president.
In 2015, Gruevski’s nemesis Zaev began releasing tapes that appeared to show mass surveillance and top-level corruption under VMRO, sparking huge street protests on both sides.
Gruevski stepped down ahead of an early election in December, but although his party narrowly won the most seats in the vote, he was unable to strike a deal with kingmaking Albanian groups.
The SDSM then won their support, but nationalist protesters took to the streets in opposition to the proposed coalition government.
They were particularly opposed to the demand that Albanian be made an official language nationwide, fearing this could lead to the federalization and eventual break-up of the country.
Ethnic Albanians make up around a quarter of the country’s population.
When the SDSM and its allies last month elected a new parliamentary speaker, ethnic Albanian Talat Xhaferi, protesters stormed the building in chaotic scenes and dozens of people were injured — including Zaev.
The SDSM and their allies accuse rivals VMRO of inciting the violence and fanning ethnic divisions in a bid to cling to power.
Earlier this month, the EU played host to Xhaferi in a gesture of support for the opposition.
US deputy assistant secretary of state Hoyt Brian Yee also flew into Skopje soon after the violence for talks to help end the deadlock.
On Wednesday Zaev said he had provided written guarantees to the president, including pledges to protect the country’s unity and sovereignty.
According to the constitution he has a 20-day deadline to submit his program and propose a government.