Conservative leader claims 3rd term in Macedonia


SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonia's conservative coalition government claimed victory in Sunday's early general elections, and the opposition conceded defeat.

Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski called the election a year before the end of his four-year term, following the opposition's walkout from the legislature. It was sparked by the jailing of a popular television channel's boss and the freezing of his bank accounts.

Gruevski was in line to be re-elected for a third term, according to preliminary results, and he declared victory at his party's headquarters. Final results will be known Monday.

"With pleasure I can announce that the winner of these elections is VMRO-DPMNE and the Coalition 'For a better Macedonia.' We have won 55 seats in the Parliament," which has 123 seats, Gruevski told reporters.

He said that the elections were "definitely fair and free."

"The majority of people have recognized that in Macedonia a change happened in 2006 when a group of young politicians came to power," Gruevski said. He added that his government's priorities will remain the economy, agriculture, investments, the fight against corruption, preserving good relations among ethnic groups and joining the EU and NATO.

According to preliminary results posted on the official site of the electoral commission, votes from 81.77 percent of polling stations give the ruling VMRO-DPMNE conservative party the edge over the opposition Social Democrats, with 39.31 percent to 32.71 percent.

The ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration, a partner in the ruling conservative coalition, has 10.52 percent, beating its political rival, the Democratic Party of Albanians, which has 5.46 percent.

VMRO-DPMNE senior official Vlatko Gjorcev said the Social Democrats had obtained 39 seats, but unofficial projections from election monitors give them as many as 43, in any case a significant increase from 18 in the outgoing parliament.

"You see what we have done with 18 lawmakers, and you can imagine what we could done now with more than 40 seats," Social Democrat leader Branko Crvenkovski said in a press conference early Monday.

Crvenkovski conceded defeat and congratulated the VMRO-DPMNE on its victory.

After polls closed, election commission official Josif Josifovski said "these were the best organized elections since Macedonia declared independence" from Yugoslavia two decades ago.

Freedom of speech, a revival of the Balkan country's moribund economy and social welfare have overtaken the usual pre-election issues of Macedonia's efforts to join NATO and the European Union, and ethnic tension with the country's sizable Albanian minority. Ethnic Albanian rebels staged a brief armed uprising against government forces in 2001.

The Social Democrats insist the crackdown on the A1 TV station in January was politically motivated, although authorities are adamant they were investigating tax fraud. The arrest of media magnate Velija Ramkovski and dozen of his executives led to protests in the Macedonian capital Skopje and weeks of A1 TV broadcasting its news bulletins from the street outside government buildings.

The opposition saw the TV crackdown as the last straw following a list of complaints against Gruevski's government. They accuse him of squandering tens of millions of euros on grandiose projects for buildings and monuments in the capital, while ignoring the lot of his population, where one out of three people are below the poverty line and unemployment runs at a staggering 32 percent. The average wage in Macedonia stands at euro320 ($466) per month.

Since gaining independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, Macedonia has struggled to spur its economy while attracting little foreign investment.

About 1.8 million Macedonians are eligible to vote. More than 1,660 candidates from 18 parties or coalitions are competing for 123 parliamentary seats for a four-year term. Three of the seats are reserved for lawmakers who will be elected by the diaspora in the United States, Europe and Australia.

Boris Kondarko, the election commission head, announced that, based on returns from 86 percent of polling stations, turnout was 63.30 percent.