Macedonians vote in early elections after wiretap scandal

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonians voted Sunday in a general election called two years early as part of a Western-brokered agreement to end a paralyzing political crisis.

The stakes were reflected in a relatively high turnout. Two hours before polls closed, voter turnout was 60.38 percent, about 7 percent higher than at the same time in the last national election in 2014, said Aleksadnar Chichakovski, head of the State Electoral Commission.

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

There are no exit polls. Preliminary results were expected around midnight (2300 GMT, 6 p.m. EST).

Former conservative Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who had headed the government since 2006, is seeking a new mandate. His VMRO-DPMNE party leads a 25-party coalition called “For a Better Macedonia.”

His main opponent is Zoran Zaev, who heads a left-leaning coalition called “For Life in Macedonia.”

Gruevski expressed satisfaction with the “calm and democratic atmosphere” under which voting took place.

“People have the power to decide who will head the country and which direction it will take,” he added.

Zaev, head of the Social Democrats-led coalition, said he hopes the opposition will win this election.

“This election is for the life and future, for a prosperous, free and united Macedonia,” Zaev said after casting his vote in his native town of Strumica.

Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov said he expected voting operation to be “calm, fair and in a democratic atmosphere” and Macedonia to focus on its priority goal of joining the EU and NATO.

While Gruevski has accused Zaev of plotting a coup and creating the political crisis, Zaev has accused Gruevski of massive theft, social injustice and corruption.

The 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.

The voting is taking place in a “calm and peaceful atmosphere, without irregularities,” Chichakovski said.

An independent election monitor said there were some cases of people photographing their ballots, which is illegal.

“Electoral boards continue to tolerate photographing the ballot,” said Darko Aleksov, head of the civic association “Most,” which monitors the elections with about 3,000 volunteers.

Police confirmed they have detained a man who photographed the ballot at a Skopje polling station and have also detained four men for bribery in the eastern town of Kocani.

Nearly 8,000 domestic and about 650 international observers monitor the election.

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, which gained independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, since the country survived a conflict with its ethnic Albanian minority in 2001.