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Macedonians Hold 'Crucial' Presidential Election


Elections billboards of the main candidates in the capital, Skopje
SKOPJE (RFE/RL) -- Macedonia has held peaceful presidential and local elections, in contrast to parliamentary polls one year ago that were marred by gun battles among supporters of rival parties.

The conduct of the vote, held amid tight security, may determine whether Macedonia is able to move forward in its bid to join the European Union and NATO.

Seven candidates are running to secure the spot being vacated by current Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski after just one term.

The election commission said that with more than half the votes counted, the governing party's candidate has taken a clear lead, but does not appear to have won enough to claim victory in the first round.

The results show Gjorge Ivanov of the center-right ruling VMRO-DPMNE party taking 36 percent, ahead of rivals Ljubomir Frckovski of the main opposition Social Democrats and former Interior Minister Ljube Boskoski.

Turnout was reported at more than 50 percent and there were no official complaints of irregularities.

Jordanka Petrovska, who braved wet, snowy streets in the capital Skopje to cast her vote, told Reuters that she hoped "that the best people are elected, people who are able to lead us towards the EU and NATO."

EU, NATO Hopes

Macedonia's bid to join the European Union and NATO are hanging in the balance. The international community has warned Skopje's plans for Western integration could be scuppered if the vote is not free, fair, or peaceful.

EU envoy Erwan Fouere said the vote is "absolutely crucial" for Macedonia, adding that if the country is not able to organize a peaceful ballot, "it will have missed its train to the EU."

Parliamentary elections in June 2008 were marred by fraud and gunfights between supporters of rival parties. The violence left one person dead and the country's reputation in tatters. Thousands of extra police have been deployed to avoid a repeat of violence.

No incidents have yet been reported in this weekend's vote.

In addition to the vote's conduct, another issue looms large: Macedonia's long-running dispute with neighbor Greece.
The Macedonian identity, nation, and language should be guaranteed. We should negotiate for a name for international use that will replace the use of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

Front-runner Ivanov used the campaign to call for a compromise in the 17-year dispute, which remains unresolved despite more than a decade of UN mediation.

"We need to support the process that is undertaken by the United Nations, with new ideas and better cooperation, so we can reach some solution that isn't insulting for either us or them," Ivanov said.

Name Dispute

Skopje's standoff with Athens is over the right to claim the name Macedonia as its own. Athens has accused Skopje of using the name as a pretext to forcibly annex Greece's own northern province of Macedonia.

Greece -- which insists on using the provisional reference of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in its dealings with Skopje -- has blocked Macedonia's NATO entry over the bitter row, and has threatened to scupper its EU bid as well.

The row is a source of passionate debate in Macedonia, one the presidential candidates have been eager to capitalize on.

Many of the hopefuls have pledged to play a constructive role in ending the dispute. Few, however, have offered concrete solutions for how they will go about doing it.

Ivanov's closest rival in the race, Frckoski of the Social Democratic SDSM, says his first step as president would be to burnish Macedonia's image as a modern, democratic country not preoccupied with ancient history.

Frckoski, whose campaign posters promise a "Macedonia safe and integrated," said a compromise must be found that does not weaken the identity of the Macedonian nation.
Leading presidential candidates Gjorge Ivanov (L) and Ljubomir Frckovski shake hands on March 6

"The Macedonian identity, nation, and language should be guaranteed. There's no question of negotiations. We should negotiate for a name for international use that will replace the use of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia," Frckoski said.

"[Proposed] names like 'North' or 'Upper Macedonia' are better than 'Republic of Macedonia (Skopje)'."

Neither Ivanov nor Frckoski are expected to garner the absolute majority needed for a first-round win, and the vote is expected to go to a runoff on April 5.

One candidate who is seen as having the possibility of edging into a second round is Imer Selmani, a member of Macedonia's ethnic Albanian majority and the candidate for the New Democracy party.

In campaign remarks, Selmani called on the Macedonian public to support intensified negotiations with Greece over the name dispute.

"Many of our citizens are fearful of any kind of change. They think that one letter in the constitutional name can change their identity. That question cannot be the main issue in negotiating for a deal with the Greek side," Selmani said.

Local elections are also being held today, including a hotly contested mayoral race in the capital Skopje.