SKOPJE, Macedonia — A referendum on changing the nation of Macedonia’s name to North Macedonia to pave the way for NATO membership attracted tepid voter participation Sunday, a blow to the prime minister’s hopes for a strong message of support.
Election officials reported that at 6:30 p.m., half an hour before poll-closing time, the turnout stood at 34 percent. The figure was based on data from 85 percent of polling stations, State Electoral Commission head Oliver Derkoski said.
The deal’s opponents had urged voters to boycott Sunday’s referendum. They started celebrating while balloting still was underway, chanting slogans outside Parliament in central Skopje.
The referendum asked Macedonians whether they supported the name change and other terms of their government’s deal with Greece, which is intended to end a dispute dating from Macedonia’s declaration of independence from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.
Greece, arguing that its small neighbor’s name implied territorial ambitions on its own Macedonia province, has blocked the country’s efforts to join NATO. The deal would also enable Macedonia to seek membership in the European Union.
But the agreement has faced vocal opposition on both sides of the border, with detractors accusing their respective governments of conceding too much to the other side.
A strong vote in favor of the deal with Greece and high voter turnout would help Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who negotiated the deal with Greece, to persuade lawmakers to vote on constitutional changes needed for it to become final.
However, the government called the referendum a consultative move, meaning it could interpret the outcome as a fair reflection of public opinion regardless of turnout. The Macedonian Constitution requires a minimum turnout of 50 percent of eligible voters for a binding referendum.
The question posed to voters at the ballot box was: “Are you in favor of membership in NATO and European Union by accepting the deal between (the) Republic of Macedonia and Republic of Greece?”
Supporters of the deal, led by Zaev, have focused on the vote being the lynchpin of the country’s future prosperity, the key to its ability to join NATO and, eventually, the EU. It would be a major step for a country that less than two decades ago almost descended into civil war, when some in its ethnic Albanian minority took up arms against the government, seeking greater rights.
Zaev cast his ballot in the southeastern town of Strumica and urged a strong turnout.
“I invite everyone to come out and make this serious decision for the future of our country, for future generations,” Zaev said. “I expect a massive vote, a huge turnout to confirm the multiethnic nature of this country and the political unity of this country.”
But opponents, pointing to the low voter participation, described the referendum as a failure.
“Even now, we can say that the referendum will not be successful,” Dragan Ugrinovski from opposition group Macedonia is Boycotting said a few hours before polls closed.
“Macedonian people and citizens do not want to join NATO. They don’t want the change of name, identity, history and tradition of Macedonian people,” Ugrinovski said.
A spokesman for opposition party VMRO-DPMNE, Ivo Kotevski, criticized the name deal as something that would force Macedonians to give up their national identity.
“Everything is wrong with that deal. It’s a deal that will have long-term consequences,” he said. “We will lose our identity because of the crime of Zaev. It’s wrong to change the constitution, it’s wrong to change the name.”
Djose Tanevski was among the early voters in Skopje, the Macedonian capital.
“I came here because of the future of our children, who should have a decent life, a life in a lovely country, which will become a member of the European Union and NATO,” he said.
But others had no intention of voting.
“I’m disappointed with all that is happening with Macedonia,” said 34-year-old Bojan Krstevski. “I cannot give up my Macedonian identity. I don’t want to be North Macedonian.”
The referendum has stirred strong interest in the West, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis among top foreign officials in Skopje recently to back the “Yes” side.
Russia, however, is not keen on NATO expanding in a part of Europe once under its sphere of influence. Mattis said there was “no doubt” that Moscow had funded groups inside Macedonia to campaign against the name change.
The deal faces several more hurdles to become final. The government must also amend the country’s constitution. The required amendments need approval by two-thirds majority of parliament’s 120 members. So far Zaev has pledges of support from 73 lawmakers — seven short.
If the constitutional amendments are approved in Macedonia, Greece would then need to ratify the deal.
But Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras faces political problems of his own. His governing coalition partner, right-wing Independent Greeks head Panos Kammenos, has vowed to vote against the deal, leaving Tsipras reliant on opposition parties and independent lawmakers to push it through.
An earlier version was corrected to show that the surname of the electoral commission chief is Derkoski.
Ivana Bzganovic in Skopje contributed to this report.
By ELENA BECATOROS and KONSTANTIN TESTORIDES, Associated Press