Macedonia’s conservative Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski is expected to win a third term in a snap election, as relative economic stability has kept at bay opposition complaints that his rule is authoritarian.
Sunday’s parliamentary vote coincides with a presidential runoff in which the incumbent Gjorge Ivanov, a candidate of Gruevski’s VMRO-DPNE, looks set to beat a Social Democrat rival and win the largely ceremonial post, the Reuters news agency reported.
Electoral officials said turnout was 9.58 percent three hours after polling stations opened at 05:00 GMT. Voting ends at 17:00 GMT and preliminary results are expected late on Sunday.
Gruevski, 43, has ruled the landlocked former Yugoslav republic of two million people since 2006 in coalition with the DUI party of former ethnic Albanian fighters.
“I expect the same coalition to remain in office but with a slightly different balance of power in favour of VMRO-DPMNE,” said Zhidas Daskalovski of the Centre for Research and Development, a Skopje-based think-tank.
The last survey published 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.
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.
“I think this will be Gruevski’s last election victory, his last chance to show he honestly wants to change our lives for the better,” said Dragan Cvetanov, a 37-year-old father of two.
Opposition parties have accused Gruevski of creeping authoritarianism and corruption, and foreign diplomats in Skopje, the capital, say there are concerns about media freedom and political pressure on journalists, Reuters reported.
US and EU officials in Skopje have publicly urged political leaders to make sure the vote is “credible and transparent”, something the SDSM party has already disputed.
“On Sunday Macedonia is choosing whether it will support the fight for freedom and the right to a better life, or continue with state robbery,” SDSM leader Zoran Zaev told a news conference on the last day of campaigning.
During Gruevski’s tenure, Macedonia’s hopes of joining the European Union and NATO have hit a brick wall due to a dispute with neighbouring Greece over what Macedonia would be formally called by the two organisations.
Greece will not accept its formal description as simply “Macedonia”, which is also the name of one of its northern provinces.
Macedonia remains one of Europe’s poorest countries but Gruevski’s government boasts solid economic growth, low public debt and a rise in foreign investment, bucking negative trends elsewhere in the region, badly hit by the eurozone crisis.