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Macedonia elects new president

Macedonians cast ballots on Sunday amid tight security in presidential elections pitting a conservative against a candidate dubbed the country's "Obama" who could be the first ethnic Albanian to reach a runoff.

world Updated: Mar 22, 2009 16:34 IST

Macedonians cast ballots on Sunday amid tight security in presidential elections pitting a conservative against a candidate dubbed the country's "Obama" who could be the first ethnic Albanian to reach a runoff.

Heavy snowfall hampered voters in mountainous western regions, forcing officials to postpone the start of the election at more than 50 polling stations, electoral commission spokesman Zoran Tanevski said.

"We are making efforts to enable the opening of those booths. Otherwise, besides the problems caused by snow, voting is underway and no problems have been reported," Tanevski told AFP.

Authorities have boosted security mindful that a repeat of deadly gunbattles in parliamentary polls less than a year ago could delay the impoverished nation's bid for European Union and NATO membership.

Almost 1.8 million voters were to elect a new president for a five-year term among seven candidates ahead of a likely April 5 runoff.

They are being asked to choose between front-runner George Ivanov of the ruling conservative VMRO-DPMNE party and six other candidates, including the suprise package of the campaign, ethnic Albanian leader Imer Selmani.

"The time has come that Macedonia gets its own Obama, in other words for an ethnic Albanian to become president," Selmani, who represents ethnic Albanians who account for 25 per cent of the two million population, said in a campaign comment that has won him the nickname "Macedonia's Obama".

Selmani was credited with almost 14 per cent of voter support in the latest opinion poll, enough to see him make it through to a likely runoff against Ivanov, who was backed by 23 per cent.

The main opposition Social Democratic Union (SDSM) party's candidate, Ljubomir Frckoski, was supported by around nine percent of the electorate, according to the same survey.

Besides the presidential poll, voters will also be asked to elect mayors and councillors of major towns in this former Yugoslav republic, which won independence in 1991 and narrowly averted a civil war 10 years later.

On Sunday, around 8,500 police were deployed to prevent any recurrence of the June 1, 2008 election day shootings that left one person dead and several others wounded in an ethnic Albanian area.

The international community has appealed for violence-free elections that would be conducted in accordance with European standards and serve as proof of Macedonia's readiness for membership in the EU and NATO.

European Union enlargement chief Olli Rehn says the elections are a "moment of truth" for Macedonia, which has yet to start EU accession talks four years after becoming an official candidate to join the bloc.

Macedonia came close to a full-blown war during a 2001 conflict between security forces and ethnic Albanian separatists ended with a peace accord giving the minority more rights and control over local affairs.

During campaigning for the fourth presidential and local elections since independence, candidates faced a tough task to motivate voters disillusioned with slow reforms and growing signs of an economic crisis.

"I don't expect any major turbulence, but soon after the polls, old problems will reappear... especially the ticking economic bomb," analyst Biljana Vankovska told AFP ahead of the vote.

Macedonian industrial production has fallen due to the global financial crisis, but Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski's government is still predicting 3.0 per cent economic growth in 2009.

More than 500 foreign and about 7,000 local observers were monitoring the vote, including some 300 from the election watchdog Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Polling stations are scheduled to close at 7:00 pm (1800 GMT), after 12 hours of voting. The first preliminary results are expected to be announced overnight.