Police patrols have been reinforced as Macedonians vote in presidential and local polls that may be critical for the country’s EU bid. The vote is widely viewed as a test of Macedonia’s ability to hold elections to international standards.
AFP - Macedonians voted Sunday amid tight security in a first round of presidential elections pitting a conservative against a candidate dubbed the country's "Obama" who could be the first ethnic Albanian to reach a runoff.
European Union enlargement chief Olli Rehn has called the elections a "moment of truth" for the former Yugoslav republic, which is seeking to join the European Union and the NATO military alliance.
The international community has appealed for violence-free elections to be conducted in accordance with European standards which would serve as proof of Macedonia's readiness for deeper integration.
The country came close to a full-blown war during a 2001 conflict between security forces and ethnic Albanian separatists that ended with a peace accord giving the minority more rights and control over local affairs.
Outgoing President Branko Crvenkovski said he expected the polls to be "peaceful and democratic, without any incident."
"We need that for democracy in the country ... but also to fulfill the most serious precondition for our Euro-Atlantic integration," he said after casting his ballot in Skopje.
Macedonia is yet to start EU accession talks four years after becoming an official candidate to join the bloc.
Heavy snowfall hampered voters in mountainous western regions, disrupting the election at more than 100 polling stations, electoral commission chairman Aleksandar Novkovski said.
Authorities boosted security mindful that a repeat of deadly gunbattles in parliamentary polls less than a year ago could delay the impoverished nation's bid for European Union and NATO membership.
Turnout half-way through the day was more than 26 percent among the electorate of almost 1.8 million voters who are to elect a new president for a five-year term from seven candidates, ahead of a likely April 5 runoff.
They are being asked to choose between front-runner George Ivanov of the ruling conservative VMRO-DPMNE party and six other candidates, including the surprise package of the campaign, ethnic Albanian leader Imer Selmani.
Ivanov appealed to voters of the majority Slavic Macedonian nation to "behave responsibly to contribute to ... the European perspective for Macedonia."
Selmani, who represents a minority of about 25 percent of the two million population, said: "I expect inter-ethnic barriers to be overcome" so that candidates are chosen on the basis of "vision and concepts" rather than ethnicity.
Selmani, nicknamed "Macedonia's Obama" due to multi-ethnic support, was credited with almost 14 percent of voter support in the latest opinion poll, enough to see him make it through to a likely second round against Ivanov, who was backed by 23 percent.
The main opposition Social Democratic Union (SDSM) party's candidate, Ljubomir Frckoski, was supported by around nine percent electorate, according to the same survey.
Besides the presidential poll, voters will also be asked to elect mayors and councillors of major towns in this former Yugoslav republic, which won independence in 1991 and narrowly averted a civil war 10 years later.
On Sunday, around 8,500 police were deployed to prevent any recurrence of the June 1, 2008 election day shootings that left one person dead and several others wounded in an ethnic Albanian area.
During campaigning for the fourth presidential and local elections since independence, candidates faced a tough task to motivate voters disillusioned with slow reforms and growing signs of an economic crisis.
Macedonian industrial production has fallen due to the global financial crisis, but Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski's government is still predicting 3.0 percent economic growth in 2009.
More than 500 foreign and about 7,000 local observers were monitoring the vote, including some 300 from the election watchdog Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Polling stations are scheduled to close at 7:00 pm (1800 GMT), after 12 hours of voting. The first preliminary results are expected to be announced overnight.
Date created : 2009-03-22