Uncertainty faces the people in North Macedonia as they decide whether to risk going out to vote in July
Skopje (Republic of North Macedonia) (AFP) - To choose your leaders or your health? Voters in North Macedonia are facing this conundrum as the country heads towards key elections just as a second wave of the coronavirus is rising.
The Balkan state has for months been weathering the pandemic in the hands of a divided caretaker cabinet whose mandate was supposed to expire in April when a snap poll was initially scheduled.
After months of delay and political bickering over when to reschedule it for, the country's main parties agreed on July 15.
But now the virus count is rising -- and at a far faster clip than the initial outbreak in early March.
"If the situation does not change, I'm not going to vote," said Bojan Sarlandziev, 37, a dental technician from the capital Skopje, where public unease is mounting.
"I don't think that it is of the utmost importance to have elections when the number of newly infected citizens is rising at this high rate," he told AFP.
A poor country with an underdeveloped healthcare system, North Macedonia went into lockdown in early March, imposing strict weekend curfews and other measures.
It appeared to work, with daily infections brought down to a trickle by mid-May.
But towards the end of the month as restrictions loosened, the infection rate jumped, with more than 100 cases now logged almost every day of June.
That has seen cases more than double in a matter of weeks -- surpassing 5,000 in the country of less than two million, with more than 230 deaths.
- Easter, Ramadan -
The Balkan state's bitterly divided political camps initially expected to campaign around efforts to join the European Union -- a goal that led the former government to controversially add "North" to the country's name, to resolve a row with Greece that had been obstructing its path.
When the EU then failed in October to open membership talks for North Macedonia, despite heavily pressuring it to pass the name-change, then-Prime Minister Zoran Zaev stepped down and called the early election to save face.
Several months later EU members eventually did give the green light, in what could have been a boost for Zaev's Social Democrats against their right-wing rivals.
But after months of virus delay, the coronavirus crisis now looks set to overshadow the campaign, with both parties trying to blame the other for the growing outbreak.
Health experts, meanwhile, say the main culprit is citizens who have been violating self-isolation orders and holding large gatherings at home.
The recent escalation of cases is "exclusively due to total disrespect of the preventive measures", said Zarko Karadzovski, who leads the commission for infectious diseases.
His colleague Dragan Danilovski says some measures were also lifted too early, giving the public a false "perception that the epidemic is over".
Throughout the crisis, the lack of a united government and parliament further contributed to confused messaging and enforcement of restrictions.
Although authorities imposed a curfew over Orthodox Easter weekend in April, churches held services before and after the holiday, doling out communion on a common spoon as per tradition.
A month later during Ramadan, a weekend curfew was shortened to allow Muslim believers to attend morning prayer, while a series of clusters emerged from iftar dinners that were held after curfew hours.
- Three-day vote -
Analysts say the pre-election atmosphere has led both parties -- who share the caretaker government -- to make political calculations at the expense of public health.
Neither side was keen to be seen interfering in religious affairs, for instance.
This "permanent political campaign" has "proved to be opposite of the public interest," said Marko Trosanovski, an analyst at the Institute for Democracy.
That makes elections a "necessary evil" to build a functioning government and re-instate parliament, he told AFP.
It will certainly be a poll like no other in the country's history.
Beginning on Monday July 13, medical workers will collect votes from virus patients and those in self-isolation.
On the following day, the sick and infirm will have space to vote alongside army members and prisoners.
And on July 15, voters will need to disinfect hands, wear masks and maintain social distancing at voting stations.
But with the second wave spreading fear in its wake, some have already decided to stay home.
"I'm not thinking of voting," said Simona Ruseva, a 33-year-old economist in Skopje.
"The number of infected is rising day by day and the situation is frightening."