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Elections

Macedonians avoid ethnic violence in vote, boosting EU chances

Macedonians have voted peacefully to fill regional seats. The electoral commission will announce the full results, plus the final turnout figure, on Monday afternoon.

The country's 2,976 polling stations closed at 7 p.m. local time (1700 GMT) on Sunday. The turnout by 5 p.m. was 57.5 percent, according to state electoral commission head Subhi Jakupi - 8 percent higher than at a similar stage in the previous local elections in 2009.

"We've probably had the best and cleanest elections so far," Interior Minister Gordana Jankuloska told reporters in Skopje after the voting ended. "We should all be proud because Macedonia showed its place is in the European Union."

At least 400 international observers monitored the election. More than 1.7 million people of the country's 2 million population were eligible to cast votes.

'No serious incident'

Ethnic Macedonians, who make up over 60 percent of the population, form the controlling majority in 63 of the country's municipalities, and minority Albanians, about 25 percent, hold 16 districts. Ethnic Turks and Serbs hold the majority in one community each.

Tensions between ethnic Macedonians and the Albanian population nearly resulted in civil war in 2001. However, Sunday's vote appeared to have skirted anything like that.

"No serious incident has been registered," police spokesman Ivo Kotevski told The Associated Press. "The voting process in general went smoothly, fair and free, without violence."

Still, the civic association MOST, which deployed 3,500 domestic observers, pointed to numerous irregularities, such as dozens of cases described as "family voting" - with one member openly guiding others. Observers also mentioned voters seen taking photos of their ballots with cellphones - possibly to offer proof to people to whom they'd promised to vote a certain way.

EU hopes

The two main coalitions to put up mayoral candidates cut across ethnic lines and are likely to win almost all of the municipal elections. A conservative coalition of 39 political parties is favored to win in most cities.

After boycotting parliament for over two months, the leftist opposition of Social Democrats joined the elections at the last moment. EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele had said the opposition's participation was crucial for Macedonia's candidacy.

Macedonia has been an EU candidate since 2005, but has not yet obtained a date for the start of accession talks. This is partly because of Greece, which has a northern province called Macedonia and alleges that the neighboring country's name implies a claim to this.

mkg/jr (AFP, Reuters, AP)