Nearly final results from Macedonia's parliamentary elections show the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party with a razor-thin lead over the opposition Social Democrats (SDSM).
The State Electoral Commission website showed that with 98 percent of the votes counted, the VMRO had won 37.96 percent of the vote while the SDSM had garnered 36.65 percent.
Final results are expected around noon on December 12.
With the country's two main parties so close, it appears neither will have a majority in the 126-seat unicameral parliament, putting great importance on the results of the ethnic Albanian parties in the elections, one or more of which could become a coalition partner.
Both the VMRO and the Social Democrats claimed victory late on December 11.
SDSM leader Zoran Zaev told supporters that "we are the winners!" He said the SDSM had "one more seat" than the VMRO.
Though final results were not available, Zaev said "the trend is clearly in our favor."
His comments came shortly after officials from former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski's VMRO-DPMNE also claimed victory.
"We won once again," Vlatko Gjorcev, a senior VMRO official, told supporters at his party's headquarters in the capital, Skopje. "The 10th [electoral] victory in a row."
Near the end of the voting, State Electoral Commission head Aleksandar Chichakovski said turnout was already at 60.38 percent of the country's 1.8 million eligible voters, more than 7 percentage points more than the last elections.
Earlier in the day, Zaev told reporters in the city of Strumica that "today we are choosing a better life and the unity of our country. Today, we are choosing a progressive, free, and united Macedonia. The first test for this will be citizens' expressions of their free choice. I hope it will indeed be this way."
Gruevski told reporters in Skopje that "considering what has happened in the past 2 1/2 years, this is a day when citizens have to express their own opinion and to come out in large numbers to polling stations to exercise their right to vote and give their opinion on what direction Macedonia should go in."
Officials reported no major problems as Macedonians voted in elections that many hope will end almost two years of instability triggered by a massive wiretapping scandal.
Central to the contest is Gruevski’s bid to regain the top post less than a year after he stepped down in the wake of major antigovernment protests over tapes that critics said implicated him and aides in corrupt deals, vote rigging, and trumped-up criminal prosecutions against opponents.
Macedonia was plunged into political crisis in February 2015, when the SDSM began releasing a series of secretly recorded tapes it claims show that parts of the VMRO-DPMNE-led government were responsible for the illegal surveillance of some 20,000 people including journalists, politicians, and religious leaders.
Parliament speaker Trajko Veljanoski votes at a polling station in Skopje.
The incendiary recordings, released on a weekly basis by Zaev, sparked antigovernment protests attended by tens of thousands of people. Zaev claims that the recordings were provided by a whistle-blower in the Interior Ministry.
Gruevski has denied the illegal surveillance and corruption accusations and sought to turn the tables by claiming that the opposition cooperated with an unnamed foreign intelligence service to push him from power. He did not provide any evidence for his claims.
He stepped down in January 2016 as part of an EU-brokered deal that put an interim government in place.
The snap poll is the result of the agreement that was signed by the heads of the four main political parties in July 2015.
Gruevski, 46, is hoping to secure a majority for his coalition by promising to create 70,000 new jobs and lower the unemployment rate.
Led by Zaev, 42, the opposition has pledged to fight corruption, improve the country’s democratic standards, and support the work of the EU-backed Special Public Prosecution Office (SJO), which is investigating the allegations that emerged from the wiretapping scandal and has charged Gruevski and 13 other people with “enticement and carrying out a criminal act against public order.”
Opposition Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev is also courting the Albanian minority.
Ethnic Albanians make up about one-quarter of the population and in the past have mainly supported the Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), which is VMRO-DPMNE’s main coalition partner, and the Democratic Party of Albanians. But the SDSM candidate list includes several prominent ethnic Albanian public figures.
The elections could affect the pace of Macedonia’s long march toward EU membership and its stated goal of joining NATO.
The country officially became an EU candidate in 2005, but critics have accused Gruevski of damaging the campaign by dragging his feet on reforms and weakening the country’s democratic institutions.
Russia voiced support for Gruevski’s conservative government during the height of the massive antigovernment protests dubbed the Colorful Revolution -- a reference to the paintball street protests and a play on the “color revolutions” that have brought down relatively Moscow-friendly governments in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan in the past 15 years.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the West of stirring up a "color revolution" in Macedonia and said it was "dangerous" to undermine Gruevski’s government.
Western diplomats say hurdles to EU membership include shortcomings in judicial independence and the rule of law as well as an escalating crackdown on media freedom in recent years. But the main obstacle is Macedonia’s continuing name dispute with EU-member Greece, which has a region with the same name.
With reporting by AFP and AP