Macedonia's conservative ruling party has claimed victory in parliamentary and presidential elections, based on its own vote count ahead of an official result that the opposition said it would not recognise.
"I can say that our fatherland is in safe hands. Nikola Gruevski remains prime minister and I can also say ... that Gjorge Ivanov remains president," Vlatko Gjorcev, a senior VMRO-DPMNE party official, told reporters on Sunday.
The state electoral commission was still counting the votes, but their early preliminary results showed the VMRO-DPMNE in a clear lead in most electoral districts, in line with surveys and forecasts by most analyst in the small Balkan country.
Zoran Zaev, leader of the main opposition party, the centre-left SDSM, accused Gruevski and his party of "abusing the entire state system", saying there were "threats and blackmails and massive buying of voters".
"A few minutes after the polls closed, I'm here to say that SDSM and our opposition coalition will not recognise the election process, neither the presidential nor the parliamentary," Zaev told reporters in the capital city of Skopje.
|Macedonian PM Nikola Gruevski casts his ballots next to his wife Borkica at a polling station in Skopje [Reuters]
Gruevski, 43, has ruled the landlocked country of 2 million people since 2006 in coalition with his ethnic Albanian partners, the DUI party.
His party immediately dismissed the opposition allegations as an attempt to manipulate public opinion.
"These have been the most peaceful elections so far," said Antonio Milosovski, a senior VMRO-DPMNE official.
"Although there were attempts by the opposition to show these elections as inefficient, the people did not allow that, they did not allow to be taken in by the manipulative scenarios from the opposition," he said.
Monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe will present their findings on Monday, after the state electoral commission publishes the results.
Opposition parties have often accused Gruevski of creeping authoritarianism and corruption. Foreign diplomats in Skopje say there are concerns about media freedom and political pressure on journalists.
Gruevski has said 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 SDSM's Zaev.
It was not immediately clear what concrete steps the opposition would take once the results are officially confirmed.
The SDSM said it was "keeping all options open and would decide in the next few days".
Macedonia remains one of Europe's poorest countries, with unemployment above 28 percent, but Gruevski's government has achieved solid economic growth, low public debt and a rise in foreign investment, unlike most neighbours in the Balkans.
Diplomats have also praised Gruevski for keeping in check tensions 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.