Macedonia's ruling Social Democrats (SDSM) have won a sweeping victory in the first round of local elections and delivered a severe blow to the conservative VMRO-DPMNE party that ruled much of the country for more than a decade.
Macedonia's State Electoral Commission late on October 16 reported final results that show the SDSM won outright 37 out of 81 municipalities and has a significant lead in another 13, while the VMRO-DPMNE lost control of 56 municipalities and won in only three rural areas in polls held on October 15.
In the biggest prize, the SDSM appears close to wresting control of the capital, Skopje, from the VMRO-DPMNE, headed by former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. Runoff elections are scheduled for October 29.
Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who is the SDSM party's leader, declared victory earlier on October 16 in anticipation of the lopsided results.
"This is what Macedonia looks like when the voting is free, peaceful, and without pressures," Zaev told his supporters. "Having freely expressed their will, the people sent a message of support for the new government's policy -- a society for everyone, as well as growth and development of the economy."
Zaev said the results mark the end of an era of "nationalism" in Macedonia presided over by Gruevski and the VMRO-DPMNE during 11 years in power.
The SDSM had sought a solid show of support as it looks to speed up the small Balkan nation's bid for membership in NATO and the European Union. The party formed a ruling coalition with the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration earlier this year in a move that ousted the VMRO and ended a three-year governmental crisis.
Gruevski, who faces criminal investigations involving allegations of corruption and a wiretapping scandal, complained of irregularities in the election but conceded defeat.
“As the party president, I certainly hold most responsibility for these results," he told a press conference.
Looking toward the second round of voting on October 29, the VMRO-DPMNE has a slight lead in six municipalities.
The junior ruling party Democratic Union for Integration, which secured outright victories in only two municipalities in the first round, maintains a lead in 10 municipalities concentrated in the northwest of the country, where most ethnic Albanians live.
Albanians make up about one-quarter of the country's population of about 2.1 million.
BalkanInsight said a second round of voting will most likely be held in 35 of the 81 municipalities. In more than 20 of those areas, it said the SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE or its smaller alliance partner will be pitted directly against each other.
The first round included candidates from 19 parties and coalitions along with independent candidates. The candidates from those smaller parties won or took the lead in just a few areas, the election commission said.
Officials estimated turnout at about 60 percent of Macedonia's 1.8 million registered voters.
With reporting by AP, AFP, and BalkanInsight