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Macedonia votes for president, eyes EU

Latest update : 2009-04-06

George Ivanov, of the ruling centre-right VMRO-DPMNE party, is favoured to win presidential elections in Macedonia, a vote seen as a key step towards European Union and NATO membership.

REUTERS - Macedonians voted for a new president on Sunday in a ballot they hope will show they deserve to join the European Union and NATO.

Once the poorest Yugoslav republic, Macedonia declared independence in 1992 and avoided the bloodshed of the 1990s when Bosnians, Serbs and Croatians fought elsewhere.

The country narrowly avoided full-out war between ethnic Albanians and Macedonians in 2001, but violence led to one death and injuries in last year’s parliamentary election.

“That sullied the democratic credentials of this country,” said Jose Luis Herrero, head of the local branch of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

“To go forward with the European Union and NATO intentions, they need those democratic credentials. That’s why these elections are so key to the country.”

Voting on Sunday was peaceful and no irregularities or incidents were reported. The State electoral commission said that almost all polling stations opened on time.

“Until now there have been no reports of any incidents,” said Zoran Tanevski, the commission’s spokesman, adding that the turnout up to 10 a.m. was 7.2 percent.

Some experts have voiced concern that the ballot might fail because of a low turnout. More than 40 percent of the 1.8 million eligible voters must cast a ballot for elections to be valid. The first-round turnout two weeks ago was 56.8 percent.

The prime minister has more power, but the president can influence the direction of the country’s foreign policy.

Macedonia applied for EU membership in 2005 but has not advanced since then, and Greece has blocked its NATO application in a 17-year-old dispute over Macedonia’s name.

The second round of voting pits Gjorge Ivanov, 49, who has never run for office before, against veteran politician Ljubomir Frckovski of the main opposition SDSM party.

Large posters of the two men and of local mayoral candidates decorate streets across the country, but not everyone is swept up in the campaign spirit.

“There is a saying in Macedonian: from two evils, you must choose one,” said Metodi Jordanov, 38, a T-shirt maker from the eastern manufacturing town of Stip. “Nothing will change.”

Hundreds of OSCE election observers have fanned out across the country to judge the fairness of the vote, and are keeping a close eye on potentially tense towns. Ethnic Albanians make up a quarter of Macedonia’s two million people.

Highlighting divisions, in Skopje on Saturday night hundreds of ethnic Albanians celebrated neighbouring Albania’s entry into NATO earlier in the day. Many feel Macedonia’s leaders have not tried hard enough to solve the country’s name dispute with southern neighbour Greece, which is blocking their NATO entry.

Polls show Ivanov, backed by the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party, in the lead. Outgoing President Branko Crvenkovski is a member of the SDSM opposition and has criticised government policy.

The new president can influence economic policy during the current crisis because he nominates the central bank governor.

Date created : 2009-04-05