SKOPJE - Macedonians began voting for a new assembly and president Sunday in a poll expected to cement the conservatives' grip on power, despite a shaky economy and a stalemate in Skopje's bid to join the EU.
The legislative vote is being held a year ahead of schedule after the ruling VMRO-DPMNE failed to agree with its ethnic Albanian coalition partner, the DUI, on a joint presidential candidate.
The run-off for a largely ceremonial post will be held between incumbent Gjorge Ivanov of the VMRO-DPMNE and his Social Democrat rival Stevo Pendarovski.
Polling stations opened at 0500 GMT and will close twelve hours later.
More than 1.7 million voters will elect a new 123-seat parliament chosing between 14 parties and coalitions.
But opinion polls have given a strong lead to both Ivanov and the VMRO-DPMNE.
The ruling party is credited with 28 per cent of the vote against 15 per cent for the opposition Social Democrats (SDSM).
VMRO-DPMNE hopes to increase its tally in parliament to 62 seats out of 123 and enable its leader Nikola Gruevski to secure a third term as prime minister.
"We need majority so nobody can blackmail us and we can keep up with a programme... that would lead Macedonia into the EU and NATO," Gruevski said at the final rally Friday.
In the outgoing assembly, Gruevski's party had just 55 seats, which forced them into a coalition with several minor parties to ensure majority backing in parliament.
"The conservatives estimate that the opposition has neither the means nor the strength to win at this moment and want to ensure four additional years in power," said analyst Aleksandar Damovski.
During the campaign, Gruevski urged voters to back his government's measures to revive Macedonia's ailing economy, which showed signs of recovery last year when it posted 3.1 per cent output growth.
But with unemployment above 28 per cent in the country of two million where the average monthly salary stands at just 350 euros ($480), ordinary Macedonians remain gloomy about their prospects.
"The time has come for a change in our country, but it will be very difficult and I do not have much hope," said housewife Elena Nikolovska.
But worker Stevan Pocev said he had confidence in the ruling party to "lead the country in a good direction." "If they are given another mandate, I expect they will solve the unemployment problem and improve living standards for the citizens," Pocev said ahead of the vote.
What's in a name?
One of the main tasks for the new government will be to kickstart Macedonia's integration into the EU and NATO, blocked for years over a name dispute with neighbouring Greece.
The opposition says the issue is hampering economic and political development in Macedonia, an EU candidate since 2005.
Greece has a northern province also called Macedonia, and the two countries have been at loggerheads over the right to use the name ever since the former Yugoslav republic proclaimed independence in 1991.
The row has hampered Macedonia's efforts to join both NATO and the EU and mediation attempts by the United Nations have so far been fruitless.
Analysts say Skopje can either strike an unpopular deal with Greece that would unblock the stalemate or risk continued economic and political damage.
Among parties representing ethnic Albanians, who make up about a quarter of Macedonia's population, the Democratic Union for Integration enjoys support of about seven per cent.
Relations between ethnic Albanians and Macedonians have been strained since a seven-month armed conflict in 2001 between government forces and Albanian guerrillas seeking more rights.
The conflict ended with an internationally brokered peace accord in August 2001 that gave the ethnic Albanian community more political rights.
More than 10,000 observers are monitoring the vote. Preliminary results are expected early Monday.