Macedonia votes hoping to end political crisis

A man casts his ballot at a polling station in Skopje on December 11, 2016 (AFP Photo/Robert ATANASOVSKI)
Macedonians voted Sunday in the hope of electing a government capable of returning stability to the small Balkan country that has been shaken by a deep political crisis.
Polling stations closed at 7:00 pm (1800 GMT) and the counting of votes begun, an electoral commission spokeswoman told AFP.
"What do I expect? I expect this agony to end," 55-year-old Zoran Milevski told AFP after he cast his ballot at a school-turned-polling station in central Skopje.
The vote was called as part of a European Union-brokered deal between Macedonia\’s four main political parties after a mass wiretapping scandal erupted in February 2015 and sparked rival street protests.
No major incidents were reported during the day, electoral officials said, although observers warned of irregularities including unauthorised voter registration at several polling stations.
Some voters reportedly faced pressure over who to vote for and local media said there were also attempts to bribe voters, but this was not confirmed.
Voters\’ photos appear next to their names on lists to limit fraud, a State Electoral Commission member told AFP.
Two hours before the end of voting the turnout was around 60 percent — seven percent more than at the same time in the last parliamentary elections two years ago.
Wiretapping allegations led Nikola Gruevski of the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party to step down in January after nearly 10 years in power — paving the way for Sunday\’s snap election.
The vote, which was twice delayed owing to international concerns over fraud, pitches the ex-PM against his nemesis, Social Democrat Zoran Zaev.
It was Zaev who released tapes last year that appeared to show the government had wiretapped thousands, including journalists and religious officials, as well as alleging high-level corruption.
Gruevski denied the claims and accused Zaev of planning a coup with foreign support.
"This is the day when people should tell their opinion… to exercise their right to vote and give their opinion on how and in what direction in the future Macedonia should move," Gruevski said after casting his ballot in Skopje.
Zaev, 42, has pitched the vote as a choice between "doom or life" and pledged to stop an exodus of young people from the former Yugoslav republic, which remains one of Europe\’s poorest countries.
"This day, today is a day on which we choose a progressive, free and united Macedonia," Zaev told reporters after he voted in his native town of Strumica, where he is also mayor.
Although critics describe 46-year-old Gruevski as a corrupt authoritarian who has clamped down on democracy and media freedom, his party topped opinion polls ahead of the election.
There also remained a substantial number of undecided voters, who could swing the result in the country of two million people.
"This election is one of the most unpredictable to take place in Macedonia," Zaneta Trajkoska, director at the Institute of Communication Studies, told AFP.
"Whoever wins the election will have huge challenges and issues to solve."
A handful of ethnic Albanian political groups are vying to become the junior partner in the new ruling coalition, in a country where a quarter of the population is Albanian.
Albanian insurgents fought Macedonian forces in an uprising 15 years ago, leading to an agreement giving the minority group more rights.
Macedonia aspires to join both the EU and NATO but accession has been blocked by Athens owing to a dispute over the country\’s name — Greece has a northern region also called Macedonia.
The latest EU progress report on Macedonia said democracy and rule of law had been "constantly challenged" in particular by "state capture", referring to the considerable influence of private interests on state decisions.
Analysts however suggest Europe has brushed aside concerns because of Gruevski\’s role as a "gatekeeper" in the refugee crisis, in which hundreds of thousands of migrants have entered landlocked Macedonia from Greece on their way to western Europe.
The refugee wave has put added pressure on the public purse in Macedonia, where the average net wage is around 360 euros ($380) a month and unemployment stands at nearly 24 percent.
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