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Macedonia votes hoping to end political crisis

Zoran Zaev (C), the leader of the oppositional Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) party, greets his supporters during their last election rally in Skopje on December 9, 2016 ahead of parlamentary elections to be held on 11 December. Robert ATANASOVSKI / AFP

Zoran Zaev (C), the leader of the oppositional Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) party, greets his supporters during their last election rally in Skopje on December 9, 2016 ahead of parlamentary elections to be held on 11 December.<br />Robert ATANASOVSKI / AFP

Macedonians began voting Sunday in an early general election in a bid to end a deep political crisis that has roiled the small Balkan country for nearly two years.

The vote was called as part of a European Union-brokered deal between Macedonia’s four main political parties after a mass surveillance scandal erupted in February 2015 and sparked rival street protests.

Voting began at 7:00am (0600 GMT) and is due to end 12 hours later.

“This moment all 3,490 polling booths are opening and all material has been delivered,” a member of the State Electoral Commission told AFP.

She said a photo will appear next to voters names on ballots to ensure credibility.

The scandal led Nikola Gruevski of the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party to step down, after nearly 10 years in power, to pave the way for a snap election.

Sunday’s vote, which was twice delayed owing to opposition and international concerns of fraud, pitches the ex-PM against his nemesis, Social Democrat Zoran Zaev.

It was Zaev who released tapes last year that appeared to show government wiretapping of thousands of people, including journalists and religious officials, along with corruption at the highest level.

Gruevski denied the claims and accused Zaev of planning a coup with foreign support.

“Zoran Zaev underestimates the citizens of Macedonia… He underestimates everyone with his games,” the defiant former premier told a flag-waving crowd of supporters in a Skopje suburb on Thursday night.

Zaev 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.

– Unpredictable –
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.

– ‘Under pressure’ –
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”, meaning the considerable influence of private interests on decisions of the state.

Analysts, however, suggest Europe has pushed 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 already strained budget in Macedonia, where the average net wage is around 360 euros a month and unemployment stands at nearly 24 percent.

In central Skopje, where Christmas decorations overshadow political billboards, engineering professor Predrag Gavrilovic said it would be the “biggest tragedy” if the election did not bring an end to political instability.

“I think the people are under extraordinary pressure, which we have to get rid of,” he told AFP. Polls open at 7.00 am (0600 GMT) and close 12 hours later.



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