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Conservative PM Gruevski set for new term as Macedonia votes

Source: Reuters - Sun, 27 Apr 2014 10:04 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Gruevski's rule created some economic stability and growth

* Opposition complains of authoritarianism

* Macedonia's bid to join EU and NATO bid blocked by Greece (Releads with voting under way)

By Kole Casule

SKOPJE, April 27 (Reuters) - Macedonians voted in a snap parliamentary election on Sunday likely to hand conservative Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski a third term as his solid economic record shielded him from opposition complaints that his rule is authoritarian.

Gruevski's VMRO-DPNE party could score a double victory as the vote coincided with a presidential runoff in which its candidate, the incumbent Gjorge Ivanov, looked set to beat a Social Democrat rival and win the largely ceremonial post.

Gruevski, 43, has ruled the landlocked ex-Yugoslav republic of 2 million people since 2006 in coalition with the DUI party of former ethnic Albanian guerrillas.

Macedonia remains one of Europe's poorest countries with the unemployment rate above 28 percent, but Gruevski's government has achieved solid economic growth, low public debt and a rise of foreign investment, unlike most neighbours in the Balkans.

However, many Macedonians expected little improvement in their daily lives.

"They are just rotating the same people and thinking only of their pockets ... while people are poorer every day," said Minir Shehabi, a 36-year old ethnic Albanian electrician from Tetovo, the centre of Albanian-dominated western Macedonia.

The last opinion poll before the vote gave VMRO-DPMNE a lead of 28.4 percent over the main opposition centre-left SDSM on 14.1 percent. The DUI party was on 7.1 percent. Analysts expect the same VMRO-DUI coalition to form the new government.

Voting ends at 7 p.m. (1700 GMT) and first unofficial results are expected around midnight.

Opposition parties have accused Gruevski of creeping authoritarianism and corruption, while foreign diplomats in Skopje say there are concerns about media freedom and political pressure on journalists.

He says any complaints of authoritarianism come from opposition parties that lack a concrete political programme to unseat him. He has dismissed as false the corruption charges and has threatened lawsuits against an opposition leader.

Diplomats have praised Gruevski for keeping a lid on tension between Macedonia's Slav majority and its large ethnic Albanian minority, whose rebellion in 2001 to secure more political rights brought the country to the brink of civil war.

Western diplomacy stopped the fighting and the rebels entered politics. Macedonia was promised NATO and EU integration like the rest of the former Yugoslavia, and became a formal candidate for EU membership in 2005.

However, during Gruevski's tenure, its hopes of joining the European Union and NATO have hit a brick wall due to a dispute with neighbouring Greece over Macedonia's name.

Athens will not accept its formal description as simply "Macedonia", which is also the name of a province of northern Greece.

Years of U.N.-mediated talks have yielded no result and Greece has blocked accession to NATO and the start of EU membership talks until a solution is found to the name dispute.

On the streets of the capital, lingering concerns over Macedonia's fragile democracy were still discernible.

"I want voting to be peaceful because democracy should win," said Elizabeta Todorovska after casting her ballot in Skopje.

The parliamentary election was called a year ahead of schedule, after the coalition partners failed to agree on a consensus candidate for president. (Additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci in Tetovo; Writing by Zoran Radosavljevic; Editing by Alison Williams)

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