By Ivana Sekularac
SKOPJE (Reuters) - Macedonia's hopes of joining the European Union and NATO were in limbo on Monday, a day after voters backed a plan to change the country's name by a large margin but failed to hit the 50 percent turnout required for the referendum result to be valid.
Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said he would press on regardless with a vote in parliament to endorse the change of name to the 'Republic of North Macedonia' but the defence minister said an early election might now prove necessary, potentially derailing the whole plan due to a tight timeframe.
Some 91 percent of voters backed the name change, demanded by neighbouring Greece as a precondition for it lifting its veto on Macedonia joining the EU and NATO. But turnout was just 36.9 percent, final figures showed, far below the required threshold for the referendum to be valid.
While the referendum was formally advisory, lawmakers had pledged to abide by it. But the low turnout means they are now free to vote against the name change, and the nationalist opposition has 49 seats in the 120-seat parliament, enough to block the two-thirds majority needed to change the constitution.
The EU, echoing the pro-Western Zaev, hailed the referendum result as a ringing endorsement of Macedonia's plans to join the bloc and NATO.
"It is now in the hands of politicians in Skopje to decide on the way forward," NATO head Jens Stoltenberg and top EU official Donald Tusk said in a joint statement. "We encourage them to seize this historic opportunity."
Germany's EU minister Michael Roth said that implementing the name agreement was crucial, saying that Macedonia's future was in Europe: "Go for it!," he said.
Russia, which opposes NATO eastern expansion, said it expected the law in Macedonia to be respected.
The main nationalist opposition VMRO-DPMNE has vowed to block the legislation. Its supporters mainly boycotted the vote in order to invalidate the result, and it says the failure to reach the threshold meant Macedonians had rejected the change.
"In the coming week we will assess if we can secure the necessary majority for the constitutional changes, and if not we will call an early election," Defence Minister Radmila Sekerinska told Reuters.
"The downside is that the election would postpone adoption of the constitutional changes for 45 to 60 days," she said.
Political analysts said the lack of a decisive referendum outcome greatly complicated the tiny ex-Yugoslav republic's push to join Western structures.
"Instead of having a clearer picture the outcome of the referendum will only deepen the political crisis,' said Petar Arsovski a political analyst. "We are likely heading towards early elections and Macedonia does not have time for that."
Greece tried to put a brave face on the setback.
"We hope that Mr. Zaev's initiative for a constitutional reform will be successful," Greek government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said on Monday.
"The Greek government will continue with sobriety and prudence ... to support the need for an implementation of the deal. This opportunity must not be wasted," he said.
Greece has insisted on the change because it views the name 'Macedonia' as implying a territorial claim on a northern Greek region of that name. Greece's parliament must also approve the June name deal and, like Zaev, leftist Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras also faces opposition from his nationalist foes.
An early election could be called in Macedonia for the end of November at the earliest, pushing the constitutional changes into the spring.
"The biggest risk is that this drags on and the EU’s electoral calendar overtakes things," an EU official said, referring to next May's elections to the European Parliament.
In Moscow, which regards NATO enlargement as a threat to its own security, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: "We are observing closely and of course think that all the processes should remain within the framework of the law."
(Reporting by Ivana Sekularac; Additional reporting by Robin Emmot and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels, Renee Maltezou in Athens and Tom Balmforth in Moscow; Editing by Gareth Jones and Peter Graff)