Macedonians have voted in a snap parliamentary election, which also sees a new president on the ballot. The tandem poll was expected to bolster the position of the ruling conservatives.
The vote for the parliament was held a year earlier than planned after the small Balkan nation's ruling VMRO-DPMNE party could not agree with its ethnic Albanian coalition partner, the DUI, on a combined presidential candidate.
More than 1.7 million voters were eligible to choose between 14 parties and coalitions forthe 123-seat parliament
. The VMRO-DPMNE, led by current Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski (pictured, left) was expected to win and hoped to increase its share of seats in parliament.
"We need a majority so nobody can blackmail is and we can keep up with the program ... that would lead Macedonia into the EU and NATO," Gruevski said Friday in a final election rally.
Under his leadership, the country has enjoyed relative economic stability, but opposition parties have expressed concerns about authoritarianism and corruption.
"On Sunday Macedonia is choosing whether it will support the fight for freedom and the right to a better life, or continue with state robbery," SDSM leader Zoran Zaev said at the end of his campaign.
A run-off election for the largely ceremonial post of president is also being held Sunday. It's a contest between VMRO-DPMNE's incumbent candidate Gjorge Ivanov (pictured, right) and Social Democrat (SDSM) candidate Stevo Pendarovski. Ivanov is the favorite, having won more than half the votes in thefirst round two weeks ago.
The EU and United States officials in the capital Skopje have publicly urged leaders to ensure the vote is "credible and transparent."
Macedonia faces issues of high unemployment and an ailing economy, with its average monthly salary just 350 euros ($480).
A key issue for the new parliament will be resolving a dispute with neighboring Greece about the country's name, which is holding the former Yugoslav republic back from joining the EU and NATO.Macedonia
has been an EU candidate since 2005. Greece also has a northern province called Macedonia and there has long been conflict over the right to use the name.
Polling stations opened at 7:00 a.m. local time (0500 GMT) and are due to close 7:00 p.m. local time. Results are expected from Monday.
se/kms (AFP, dpa, Reuters)