Macedonians are going to the polls for the fifth time since gaining independence in 1991. This is the first parliamentary vote since the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia officially became a candidate to join the European Union, and most of the contenders have their eyes set on that goal.
The outgoing prime minister, Vlado Buckovski, has made much of his record on Macedonia’s EU accession bid. His foreign minister Ilinka Mitreva has also campaigned with the message that a victory for the ruling Social Democrats would also be a victory for European integration.
“Here, together with you, we celebrated when the country was accepted as an EU candidate, and here we will celebrate the election result,” she told the crowds.
As well as strengthening cooperation with Brussels, the governing SDSM and its coalition partner have pushed through the main elements of the peace deal that ended an insurgency in 2001. That conflict brought the country close to civil war.
However the economy has proved to be the Social Democrats’ achilles heel.
Macedonia is one of the poorest countries in Europe. GDP per capita income is less than two thousand euros a month, and unemployment is above thirty percent. The economy is set to grow by four percent this year.
Those statistics could well benefit the main opposition, the VMRO-DPMNE. It is led by Nikola Gruevski, a former nationalist who has rebranded himself as a free-market reformist.
An important factor in this election is the ethnic Albanian vote. The favourite, according to opinion polls, is Ali Ahmeti, the head of the Democratic Union for Integration. Once a guerrilla leader, he has taken a moderate stance since the 2001 peace accord. As a member of Buckovski’s government, he has won respect from Western diplomats in Skopje.
But some ethnic Albanians believe he has abandoned their cause and have turned to Arben Xhaferi’s more radical Democratic Party of Albanians. He argues the minority is still suffering at the hands of the Macedonian Slav majority.