With two hours of voting left, Macedonia's first local ballot under a power-sharing deal was seen passing peacefully. The agreement was designed to give the 25% Albanian minority greater autonomy.

Election officials reported only a handful of "minor" incidents as turnout reached 33% by 3pm.

The deal, which has stirred resentment, represents the final pillar of the Ohrid accord brokered by the West with rebels more than 3 years ago to prevent a new Balkan civil war.

"This is a chance for Macedonia to have democratic elections without violence. This is a test," Veton Latifi a lecturer at SEE University in Macedonia told Aljazeera.net

Step forward

International observers are in the former Yugoslav republic to monitor the poll to elect local government officials in new municipalities created following an ethnic Albanian rebel insurgency four years ago.

Ethnic Albanians will gain greater
autonomy under the reforms

An internationally brokered cease-fire paved the way for the reforms.

Ethnic Albanians, demanding minority-rights guarantees from the majority Macedonian Slavs, will gain greater autonomy under the reformed local government system with expanded control over schools, law enforcement and taxation.

"The most important thing for Macedonia and all of us is to have peaceful, fair and democratic elections today," President Branko Crvenkovski said after voting near the capital, Skopje. "This will be ... a big step forward toward our strategic goal, a place in Europe."

Kosovo tension

Nearly 400 candidates from dozens of political parties are participating in mayoral races in 85 municipalities, including the capital Skopje.

Two-term Skopje Mayor Risto Penov, a 47-year-old Liberal-Democrat, is facing a challenge from opposition-backed businessman Trifun Kostovski, 58, in a campaign marred by corruption allegations from both sides.

There is increased tension in
neighbouring Kosovo

International attention on Sunday's poll increased following heightened tension in neighbouring Kosovo where ethnic Albanians, in a related ethnic dispute, are seeking independence from Serbia-Montenegro. Kosovo's prime minister, Ramush Haradinaj, stepped down on 8 March after being indicted for war crimes by the UN tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands.

But Macedonia's elections are as much about low living standards as they are about resolving ethnic divisions.

"The vast majority of people here see these elections as a test of the nation's democratic maturity," Pande Lazarevski, director of the Macedonian Institute for Social, Science and Political Researches, told the AP.

Poverty

One in every three Macedonians is unemployed in this landlocked country the size of Sicily which became independent in 1991 as the old Yugoslav federation fell apart at the start of a decade of wars. The average monthly salary there is $200.

"All we hear are promises," undecided Skopje voter Liljana Hristova said. "I've been hearing them for 12 years and the country is getting worse. Young people are leaving the country. Others would like to but have no money."

The biggest threat to Macedonia, she said, was not ethnic
divisions but "an empty stomach."