Macedonia elections pass off peacefully

Voting in Macedonia's presidential and local elections passed off peacefully today in contrast to the violence of last year's…

Voting in Macedonia's presidential and local elections passed off peacefully today in contrast to the violence of last year's parliamentary poll that had stoked fears EU membership would be further delayed.

The Skopje-based European Union envoy Erwan Fouere praised a democratic vote: "The elections took place in a calm atmosphere and we command the members of the electoral boards and citizens of this country who despite the harsh weather came out to vote."

Mr Fouere said an assessment report would by issued on Monday by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) whose observers monitored the polls.

Seven candidates contested the presidential election, with politics professor Gjorge Ivanov ahead in opinion polls but unlikely to win the mainly ceremonial role in the first round. Local voting for mayors and city councils was held in parallel.

The international community has warned that if Macedonia's election are not fair and peaceful, it risks losing the chance of beginning membership talks with the European Union and Nato.

"There is no more time to be lost. These elections must be spotless," a Western diplomat based in Skopje said.

The West feared the vote could produce scenes reminiscent of last year's parliamentary elections, which descended into chaos and violence, leaving one person dead and nine wounded.

The violence was the worst since an ethnic rebellion in 2001, when Western nations narrowly helped avert a civil war, using the lure of Nato and EU membership to squeeze greater rights for minorities from the government and persuade Albanian guerrillas to disarm and enter politics.

Despite progress on ethnic relations, the country is still largely poor, unstable and economically hampered by a 17-year dispute with Greece. Athens objects to the name Macedonia, because it is also the name of Greece's northernmost province, and vetoed Macedonia's entry into Nato in 2008 over the dispute.

Hundreds of policemen and nearly 3,500 local and international election observers were on duty.

Heavy snowfall prevented 103 polling stations from opening preventing about 12,000 people, about one percent of the electorate, from voting. Aleksandar Novakovski, the president of the state election commission, said voting would be rescheduled in the affected areas.

He said the turnout was close to 50 per cent by 5pm (4pm Irish time). First projections of the results are expected in several hours after the 7pm close of 2,800 polling stations for 1.8 million eligible voters.