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Countdown for complex power-sharing talks in North Macedonia

SKOPJE, North Macedonia (AP) — North Macedonia’s newly elected lawmakers took their seats Tuesday for the first time since the country’s July 15 elections, wearing masks and maintaining social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tuesday.s formal first session of parliament starts a 10-day countdown for the leader of the party that came first in the elections to conclude complicated power-sharing negotiations with smaller parties. If these talks fail then the second party will have a go.

Lawmakers met in a specially prepared parliamentary hall that allowed them to be spaced 2 meters (6.5 feet) apart, while temperature checks were carried out on arriving politicians. North Macedonia is among the most severely affected Balkan nations by the pandemic. By Monday, the country of around 2 million people had more than 11,000 confirmed cases, with 500 fatalities since late February.

In last month's elections, a coalition headed by the pro-Western Social Democrats garnered only 46 seats in the 120-seat parliament, well short of the 61 that they must secure to be granted the mandate to form a government. Social Democrat leader and former prime minister Zoran Zaev said Tuesday he is starting power-sharing talks and is expected to begin with two parties representing the country's sometimes restive ethnic Albanian minority.

The Democratic Union for Integrations, or DUI, has been part of coalition governments for the past 18 years. But the party is demanding that an ethnic Albanian be appointed prime minister for the first time in North Macedonia's history — a demand flatly rejected by the main political parties during the election campaign.

DUI won 15 seats in July’s election, while another coalition of two small ethnic Albanian parties, the Alliance for Albanians –Alternative, won 12 seats. The center-right VMRO-DPMNE party, which came a close second in the election, holds 44 seats.