Conservatives hold slim lead in Macedonia election

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Nearly complete results in Macedonia's national election gave the conservative coalition a slim lead over its left-wing rival early Monday, though no bloc appeared headed to winning a parliamentary majority on its own.

The election was called two years early as part of a Western-brokered agreement to end a paralyzing political crisis in Macedonia, which gained independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991.

With 98 percent of polling stations reporting, the conservative coalition led by former prime minister Nikola Gruevski's VMRO-DPMNE party had 37.94 percent of the vote, while the leftist coalition headed by opposition leader Zoran Zaev's Social Democrats had 36.63 percent.

Supporters of both big parties were in the streets claiming victory in Sunday's balloting, which saw voter turnout at 67 percent, one of the highest in recent general elections in Macedonia.

The state electoral commission's website, which crashed for an extended period before being restored about 3 a.m. (0100 GMT) Monday, did not give seat projections, but it was certain that neither of the two main coalitions would end up with a majority of seats. That will make the country's ethnic Albanian parties necessary coalition partners, with probably more than one needed to form a stable government.

An ethnic Albanian party that usually allies with Gruevski, the Democratic Union for Integration, led by former guerrilla commander Ali Ahmeti, had 7.33 percent of the vote. In an unexpected showing, Besa, a new Albanian party formed in 2014, was second at 4.94 percent. The Democratic Party of Albanians, which had been expected to finish second, was pushed into fourth behind Besa and another new party, the Alliance for Albanians.

VMRO-DPMNE supporters celebrated in front of the party headquarters in downtown Skopje, the capital.

Addressing his supporters, Gruevski declared victory: "From 88.6 percent of counted votes, we are in the lead with 440,000 votes over the Social Democrats with 415,000 votes. This is the 10th electoral victory for VMRO and the majority of the people gave the vote to our program and vision."

Activists in the opposition coalition, however, claimed their projections pointed to a victory by their side and gathered in celebration outside the main government building.

Nearly 1.8 million registered voters were eligible to choose 123 lawmakers for the single-chamber parliament. Three seats are reserved for Macedonians living abroad.

Gruevski, who headed the government since 2006 before resigning as part of the deal to hold early elections, sought a new mandate. His leads a 25-party coalition called For a Better Macedonia.

The political crisis began after the opposition accused the conservative government of an illegal wiretapping operation that targeted 20,000 people, including politicians, judges, journalists, police and religious leaders.

Gruevski charged that Zaev was guilty of plotting a coup and creating the political crisis. Zaev accused Gruevski of massive theft, social injustice and corruption.

Over several months, Zaev released audio of dozens of wiretapped phone conversations that he said indicated Gruevski and his aides were involved in multimillion-dollar corruption deals, tampered with election results and brought spurious criminal prosecutions against opponents.

The conservatives vehemently rejected the charges, saying the wiretaps were conducted by unnamed foreign spies.

Gruevski is under investigation by the country's Special Prosecution branch and has already been charged with enticement and carrying out a criminal act against public order.

The scandal led to months of street protests and has been the worst political crisis in Macedonia since the country survived a conflict with its ethnic Albanian minority in 2001.

But voting took place in a "calm and peaceful atmosphere, without irregularities," said state election commission head Aleksandar Chichakovski, the electoral chief.