Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, centre, accompanied by his wife Zorica, left and his son Dusko, right, casts his ballot at a polling station during a referendum in Strumica, southeastern Macedonia, Sunday, Sept. 30, 2018. Macedonians were deciding Sunday on their country's future, voting in a crucial referendum on whether to accept a landmark deal ending a decades-old dispute with neighbouring Greece by changing their country's name to North Macedonia, to qualify for NATO membership and also pave its way toward the European Union. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

The Latest: Turnout in Macedonia name vote under 29 percent

September 30, 2018 - 11:58 am

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — The Latest on Macedonia's referendum on a name change for the country (all times local):

5:45 p.m.

Macedonia's state election commission says voter turnout for a referendum on changing the country's name to North Macedonia to pave the way for NATO membership stood at 28.8 percent two hours before polls close.

State Electoral Commission head Oliver Derkoski provided the updated turnout figure as of 5 p.m. Sunday. Low turnout could make it harder for Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev to persuade lawmakers to vote on constitutional changes needed for the deal with Greece to become final.

The Macedonian Constitution requires a minimum turnout of 50 percent of eligible voters for a binding referendum. However, Zaev's government says the referendum was called as a consultative move.

That means it could interpret the outcome as a fair reflection of public opinion regardless of how many voters participated.

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The name change is part of a deal with neighboring Greece reached in June, under which Macedonia changes its name and Greece drops its objections to the country joining NATO. It would end a dispute dating from the early 1990s, when Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia. Greece argued that its small neighbor's name implied territorial ambitions on its own province of the same name.

3 p.m.

A Macedonian election official says turnout in Macedonia's name change referendum stood at 16 percent six hours before the polls close.

Macedonians are voting on whether to accept a deal with neighboring Greece under which they will change their country's name to North Macedonia and Greece will drop its objections to the country joining NATO.

State Electoral Commission head Oliver Derkoski gave the 1 p.m. turnout figure.

The government, which called the referendum, has described it as non-binding, meaning it could take the result as an accurate reflection of public opinion regardless of the turnout.

Opponents of the name deal with Greece, which include President Gjorge Ivanov, have called for a boycott of the vote.

— This corrects the name of the election chief to Derkoski.

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10 a.m.

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has cast his ballot in his country's crucial referendum on whether to accept a landmark deal ending a dispute with Greece by changing the country's name to North Macedonia.

Speaking after voting Sunday in the southeastern town of Strumica, Zaev urged his fellow countrymen to come out in force to vote. He said he was confident of a strong turnout that would prove Macedonians are in favor of joining NATO and eventually the European Union.

Zaev said Macedonians "are deciding the fate of our country. I invite everyone to come out and make this serious decision for the future of our country, for future generations."

Still, the agreement has faced vocal opposition on both sides of the border and critics have urged people to boycott's Sunday's referendum.

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7 a.m.

Macedonians are deciding on their country's future, voting whether to accept a landmark deal ending a decades-old dispute with neighboring Greece by changing their country's name to North Macedonia and paving the way to NATO membership.

The June deal would end a dispute dating from the early 1990s when Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia. Greece had argued that use of the name implied territorial ambitions on its own province of the same name, and blocked the country's efforts to join NATO.

But the agreement has faced vocal opposition on both sides of the border and critics have urged citizens to boycott's Sunday's referendum.

Opponents in Macedonia include the country's president, Gjorge Ivanov, who has called the deal a "flagrant violation of sovereignty."

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Ivana Bzganovic in Skopje contributed to this report.

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