"We will do everything in our power in line with the law and police authority to enable the citizens to vote peacefully and without pressure," Gordana Jankulovska, the interior minister, said.

Elections in 2008 were marred by clashes between supporters of rival ethnic-Albanian parties, which killed one person and injured at least nine others.

Ceremonial presidency

Seven candidates are running to replace Branko Crenkovski, the outgoing president, and the winner holds office for a five-year term.

The presidency is largely ceremonial, but the president can be influential in areas such as foreign policy.

Gjorgje Ivanov, 49, a front-runner from the governing VMRO-DPMNE party, leads in opinion polls by 23 per cent.

Ljubomir Frckoski, 51, who is backed by the Social Democratic SDSM party, trails 10 per cent behind Ivanov.

A further 365 candidates are running for 85 mayoral posts in simultaneous local elections.

The first election projections could come out just several hours after polls close at 19:00 GMT.

Heavy snowfall cut off hundreds of polling centres throughout Macedonia [AFP]
A first-round victory requires an absolute majority, but experts say the vote will reach a runoff between the two leading candidates on April 5.

Macedonia has at least 1.8 million eligible voters and 40 per cent of them must cast ballots in a run-off for their votes to be valid. At least 7,000 Macedonian and 500 foreign election observers are to monitor the vote.

Using the lure of Nato and EU membership, non-governmental organisations launched campaigns titled "Don't shoot your future" in an effort to prevent violence.

Erwan Fouere, the EU special representative to Skopje, addressed Macedonians on the eve of the elections, saying that Sunday's vote "is the last chance not to miss the train again to EU" membership.

"This is probably the last opportunity for quite some time for the country to show that it has not only the capacity, but also the political will, to organise elections in line with international standards," Fouere said.

Macedonia's hope of joining the EU and Nato are also threatened by an 18-year long dispute with Greece, which vetoed the country's entry into Nato in 2008 because of the country's name.

Meanwhile, weather conditions could hamper voter turnout in the former Yugoslav republic where snowfall has been heavy over the past few days.

Meteorologists have forecast continued snow on Sunday.

Zoran Tanevski, the state election commission spokesman, said: "Out of a total 2,976 polling stations, some 445, mostly in the western and north parts of the country are cut off because of the heavy snowfall.''