- The Washington Times - Monday, March 23, 2009

SKOPJE, MACEDONIA (AP) - Macedonia’s presidential election was free of violence and met most democratic standards, international monitors said Monday _ a clear improvement over last year when a parliamentary vote was marred by gunfights and fraud.

The governing party’s Gjorgje Ivanov, 49, emerged as favorite to win the presidency in an April 5 runoff vote against 51-year-old Social Democrat Ljubomir Frckoski after a vote Sunday seen as crucial for the country’s hope of joining both NATO and the European Union.

Ivanov, the candidate of the conservative VMRO-DPMNE party, finished comfortably ahead with 35.06 percent of the vote, followed by Frckoski with 20.45 percent, Macedonia’s country’s electoral commission said.

“It is a pleasure for me to see that this country has made a number of steps along the democratic road,” said Pia Christmas-Moller of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

“Irregularities and a lack of trust remain, and these must be dealt with, but there is no doubt that you have made further progress in holding elections according to international commitments,” she said.

The monitoring mission noted some procedural irregularities and some allegations of election-related pressure targeting public employees before the vote. It also said improvements could be made in the ballot counting process.

But the vote was a far cry from the June 2008 parliamentary election, when fighting between rival minority ethnic Albanian parties left one person dead and several wounded. That violence was the worst since 2001, when minority ethnic Albanians fought a six-month insurgency.

This time, some 55.85 percent of Macedonia’s 1.8 million voters cast ballots to choose Macedonia’s fourth president since its 1991 independence from Yugoslavia, the election commission said. Mayoral elections were also held, and security for the vote was tight.

“(Macedonians) have proved that we have capacity to conduct fair and democratic elections,” said Ivanov, an international law professor. “We have proved that European values live in Macedonia and that this country deserves to become an equal member of the EU and NATO.”

Seven candidates ran to replace President Branko Crvenkovski, who did not seek a second five-year term. The post is largely ceremonial.

Macedonia, one of Europe’s poorest countries where unemployment runs at 35 percent, is eager to strengthen ties with the rest of Europe.

Macedonia is also embroiled in a dispute with Greece over its name. Athens _ which says the name “Macedonia” implies territorial claims on its own province of the same name _ has vetoed their bid for NATO membership until the issue is resolved.

Ivanov, a newcomer backed by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, has presented himself as a unifying figure but his party has taken a hard line with Greece, saying that changing Macedonia’s name would undermine its nationhood.

Frckoski advocates a compromise with Athens.

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