North Macedonia's prime minister formally steps down

North Macedonia's Prime Minister Zoran Zaev speaks during a press conference with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic after the "Open Balkan" initiative at the Palace of Brigades, Tirana, Albania, Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021. Leaders of the three countries convene regularly to promote their countries' political and economic ties along the path toward integration with the European Union. (AP Photo/Franc Zhurda) (Franc Zhurda, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

SKOPJE – North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev formally resigned Wednesday, in a move he had announced after his governing Social Democrat party's heavy defeat in October's local elections.

Zaev is set to be replaced by a former deputy finance minister, Dimitar Kovachevski, who was elected as the left-wing party's new chief on Dec. 13 after Zaev also relinquished the Social Democrats' leadership.

“The results of the last elections, although local, had a national political weight for the political moment in which the country is,” Zaev said in a letter explaining his resignation.

North Macedonia’s parliament is expected to formally accept Zaev's resignation on Thursday.

Within the next 10 days, President Stevo Pendarovski must hand the mandate to form a new government to a coalition led by the Social Democrats that controls a majority in the 120-member parliament.

The Social Democrats secured the majority — avoiding an early election — after striking a deal with a small ethnic Albanian party to join the government coalition that will control 64 seats.

After receiving the mandate, Kovachevski, 47, will have 20 days to propose a new government to parliament. His new cabinet is expected to be elected by mid-January.

Zaev served as party leader since 2013 and as prime minister since 2016. He secured North Macedonia’s membership in NATO after ending a decades-long dispute with Greece over the country’s name. But he was unable to advance ambitions to join the European Union, largely due to a historic dispute with another EU neighbor, Bulgaria.

Zaev said Wednesday the deal with Greece "provided lasting peace, security and paved the path for the economic well-being of the people.”

The country's center-right main opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE, is pressing for an early election, insisting that new cabinet must gain its legitimacy only through a vote.