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Scandal-hit Gruevski seeks comeback in Macedonia election

Voting has begun across Macedonia as ex-prime minister Nikola Gruevski seeks another chance to lead the country. He stepped down from his fourth term in January amid a corruption and surveillance scandal.

Sunday's election was called as part of a European Union-brokered deal to bring about an end to a deep political crisis that has afflicted the tiny Balkan country over the past two years.

Former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who leads the center-right VMRO-DPMNE party, is looking to brush off a mass surveillance scandal and return as leader for a fifth term.

Gruevski was forced to step down in January after a decade in power amid widespread public protests, after accusations his government wiretapped the phone conversations of tens of thousands of citizens.

End of crisis?

A caretaker government has been running the former Yugoslav republic ever since.

Despite the scandal, he is favored to finish in first place and be positioned to lead a coalition. But analyst said a large number of undecided voters could swing the result against the longtime leader.

Zoran Zaev

Zoran Zaev, the leader of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), wants to prevent Greuvski's return to office

Gruevski's main challenger is the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), whose leader Zoran Zaev released tapes last year that also appeared to show corruption at the highest level of government.

"Citizens are choosing between life and the regime," Zaev said before his last pre-election rally in the capital, Skopje on Friday.

Sunday's vote, which sees 11 parties and coalitions seek parliamentary representation, was twice delayed owing to opposition and international concerns of fraud.

Albanians represented

Four parties representing the ethnic Albanian community, which accounts for around a third of the population of 2.1 million, are also running for election. Traditionally, an Albanian party joins a coalition government as junior partner.

Polling stations opened at 0600 UTC and were due to close at 1800 UTC.

On Friday, President Gjorge Ivanov called for a free and fair election process to ensure the "beginning of the end of the political crisis and the beginning of national reconciliation."

Macedonia, one of Europe's poorest countries, 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.

Watch video 26:03

Nikola Poposki on Conflict Zone

mm/jr (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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