Macedonia’s ruling Social Democrats (SDSM) claimed victory in municipal elections on October 15, gaining a solid show of support as they look to lead the Balkan nation to eventual NATO and European Union membership.
Prime Minister Zoran Zaev's SDSM party said early on October 16 that it had won in more than 40 of Macedonia's 81 municipalities in the first round of voting, calling it "a victory of democracy" and igniting celebrations in the capital, Skopje, among supporters.
"This is how Macedonia looks when the voting is free, peaceful, and without pressures," Zaev said during victory celebrations.
Early results backed the SDSM's claims. With 30 percent of 3,480 polling stations reporting, the SDSM coalition led in 44 municipalities, including Skopje. Candidates from the main opposition, the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE, led in 13.
Officials estimated turnout at about 60 percent of the 1.8 million registered voters. Full results were expected later on October 16, and runoff elections are scheduled for October 29.
Police and the Electoral Commission said voting was mostly peaceful, although the leader of the VMRO-DPMNE, former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, complained of irregularities and said the election "passed in an undemocratic atmosphere and in unfair conditions."
The SDSM faced VMRO-DPMNE directly in about 50 municipal contests, with ethnic Albanians making up a majority in the 30 other municipalities. Zaev’s SDSM formed a coalition with the key ethnic Albanian party.
Candidates from 19 parties and coalitions along with independent candidates competed in the first round.
The most closely watched contest is the mayoral battle in the capital, Skopje.
Eight candidates are competing, with preelection polls showing SDSM candidate Petre Silegov holding a 2.6 percentage point lead over incumbent Koce Trajanovski of VMRO-DPMNE. Trajanovski is seeking a third term.
Mayor races will only be decided after the second round of voting.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) sent more than 300 observers to Macedonia for the vote. It has not yet commented on its findings.
The elections were seen as a test for Zaev’s government five months after it came to power following an extended period of political instability.
Before the vote, opinion polls gave a slight advantage to Zaev’s governing coalition of SDSM and the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), which came to power following national elections in December 2016 and after protracted negotiations.
Leaders of the left-leaning, pro-West SDSM had said victory in the municipal elections would signal backing to implement their policies in the face of opposition from the conservative VMRO-DPMNE.
Along with leading Macedonia to eventual NATO and EU membership, Zaev has vowed to resolve investigations into alleged wiretapping and election abuses that were launched by prosecutors against members of the former Gruevski government, which spent 11 years in power.
The VMRO-DPMNE denies any wrongdoing, blaming foreign spies for the wiretapping scandal.
VMRO-DPMNE candidates focused on "national issues" during the campaign.
They claimed that Zaev’s SDSM planned to change the country's name in deference to Greece, as it looks to enhance its accession chances with NATO and the EU.
Athens has long insisted that the name Macedonia should only be used for its own northern province, and it has vetoed Skopje's attempts to join NATO and to start EU accession talks over the dispute.
Athens, Brussels, and the United Nations refer to the Balkan country as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
The U.S. ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, told The Washington Post that Macedonia was a likely candidate become the next NATO member, but she said the country must first resolve the name issue in a manner acceptable to Macedonia and Greece.
Meanwhile, VMRO-DPMNE also has raised ethnic issues, slamming Zaev's government for proposing to make Albanian Macedonia's second official language.
Albanians make up about 25 percent of Macedonia’s total population of some 2.1 million people, and Zaev only managed to secure a majority when he reached a coalition deal with Albanian parties after the December election.
Macedonia had been thrown into political turmoil after VMRO-DPMNE finished first in the parliamentary vote but was unable to secure a governing majority.
Second-place Zaev was eventually able to form a coalition with the ethnic Albanian DUI party, a move that ignited nationalist protests in some parts of Macedonia.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, Balkan Insight, Sofia News Agency, and European Western Balkans