Prague, 22 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The election -- which is to be held several months ahead of schedule as a result of former President Boris Trajkovski's death -- has not left political parties much time to prepare.
With less than a month to go until the 14 April vote, the names of the aspiring candidates are already known, and the stakes -- further European integration -- are high.
There are signs mudslinging may have already begun.
The race is expected to be between candidates from the two largest political parties, the ruling Social Democratic Alliance (SDSM) and the opposition Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Union (VMRO-DPMNE).
SDSM nominated Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski as its candidate. The nationalist VMRO-DPMNE backed Sasho Kedev, a relatively unknown heart surgeon.
Candidates have to submit the signatures of 10,000 supporters by the end of today. Their applications will then be approved by Macedonia's election commission, which will officially launch the election campaign on
Both Crvenkovski and Kedev are seeking to present themselves as worthy successors of Trajkovski, a moderate leader who played a crucial role in negotiating an end to an ethnic Albanian insurgency in 2001. Trajkovski died on 26 February when his plane crashed in southern Bosnia.
In accepting his party's nomination, Crvenkovski said Macedonia must not take risks at the poll but elect a president who can guarantee its continued stability and European integration.
"I accept the nomination because I believe that with the experience, the will, and confidence that I have, I can preserve and speed up the general course of Macedonia," Crvenkovski said. "I can fully contribute to strengthening the internal unity in our country. I can strengthen the foundation of the state and its future -- in other words, interethnic relations, mutual trust and understanding."
Kedev, repeating almost word for word a pledge Trajkovski made when he was elected, said he intends to be a president for all citizens of Macedonia.
Kedev's nomination, however, appears to be creating splits within his own party. Ljube Boskovski, a VMRO-DPMNE deputy and former interior minister, announced he has already collected the required 10,000 signatures and plans to run as well.
Macedonia's ethnic Albanian parties have failed to agree on a single candidate.
The Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI) nominated its general secretary, Gezim Ostreni, a former chief of staff of the Albanian National Liberation Army. Ostreni also has the backing of the smaller Albanian Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD).
The opposition Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH) initially nominated party leader Arben Xhaferi but later put forward another candidate after reports Xhaferi's candidacy may be disputed.
At least two other aspiring candidates also are gathering signatures.
The relatively large pool of candidates means the race may be decided in the second round, with the votes of the large ethnic Albanian minority likely to play a key role. In 1999, Trajkovski was elected in the second round with the support of the ethnic Albanian vote.
The presidential election next month is widely seen as a test of whether political parties can live up to the legacy of the moderate Trajkovski. Macedonia will formally submit its application for EU membership in Dublin later today.
The EU and other international organizations have expressed hopes for a fair and democratic election.
Pande Lazarovski, an analyst from the Institute for Sociological and Political affairs in Skopje, said he fears a return to the no-holds-barred approach of previous campaigns.
"All that is being said goes beyond the specifics of the presidential institution. That is why the presidential election campaign is an opportunity for all political forces to gauge their strength in general," Lazarovski said. "But even in that context, I would say that ordinary people expect to hear something good, positive -- and not politicians slinging mud at
Gjorgi Ivanov from the Skopje Law Faculty said a degree of tension is inevitable in such a short election campaign. After Trajkovski's death, the parliament approved a change to the election law so that a president could be chosen more quickly.
"When you have an early election you can expect an election campaign to be out of the ordinary. If elections were called when they were due, the campaign would have been as usual, with the usual methods, the usual deadlines," Ivanov said. "As deadlines now have been brought forward, in some ways this is going to be an extraordinary election campaign, with a lot of nervousness, a lot of emotions."
There are signs mudslinging may have already begun. The VMRO-DPMNE has already requested more international monitors, saying it fears election fraud.
The opposition party also demanded that Crvenkovski halt his duties as prime minister, claiming the office gives him an unfair advantage. Prime Minister Crvenkovski rejected the demand.
(RFE/RL's Macedonian unit contributed audio to this report.)