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OSCE: Macedonia's Polls Met International Standards

Gjorge Ivanov will face off against Ljubomir Frckovski on April 5.
SKOPJE (Reuters) -- International observers have said that Macedonia's local and presidential elections met most international standards, paving the way for progress toward joining the European Union.

The vote on March 22 was seen as the key test of Macedonia's political maturity, with the EU warning that failure to hold elections according to international standards could further delay the slow march toward membership.

"The first round, despite some issues of concern, represents an important step forward," Peter Eicher, head of the international observers' mission, told a news conference.

According to preliminary results announced by the state Election Commission, ruling right-wing VMRO-DPMNE candidate Gjorge Ivanov, and opposition hopeful Ljubomir Frckovski will face off in a second round on April 5.

Ivanov won 33.94 percent of the vote, while Frckovski had 19.75 percent, the commission said.

The results of the vote are unlikely to change the country's direction. The presidency is a ceremonial position with only limited power to influence foreign policy.

"The authorities and political party leaders made concerted efforts to ensure the elections took place in a calm environment," the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in a report published on March 23.

The OSCE said despite progress made some concerns remained.

"The observers also noted that an atmosphere of distrust persisted to some extent, as demonstrated by numerous troubling allegations of election-related pressure or intimidation, especially targeting public employees, during the pre-election period," the report said.

Security was the main issue in the March 22 elections after violence erupted between rival ethnic Albanian parties during last year's vote, killing one person and wounding nine.

That election violence was the worst since the end of a 2001 rebellion, when the West helped avert civil war by securing more rights for Albanians and disarming guerrillas with the lure of NATO and EU membership.

Macedonia applied for EU membership in 2004, but the process has long since stalled. Despite progress on ethnic relations, Macedonia is still largely poor, unstable, and economically hampered by a 17-year-old dispute with Greece.

Athens objects to the name Macedonia because it is also used for Greece's northernmost province, and vetoed Macedonia's admission to NATO in 2008 because of the dispute.