Citizens of Macedonia are voting Sunday in local elections that are seen as an important test of the southern Balkan country's stability and its commitment to power-sharing between the Macedonian majority and the ethnic Albanian minority.
The local elections are about decentralization and power-sharing.
Four years ago, Macedonia was ravaged by conflict, and faced the possibility of civil war. Ethnic Albanians comprise a quarter of Macedonia's population of two-million. The crisis ended with a peace agreement brokered by western governments. At the heart of the deal, was the promise of decentralization, which would give Albanians real power in the areas in which they live.
Beginning in July, the new municipal governments that are now being chosen will exercise far more power in education, policing, roads and sanitation. Ethnic Albanians will be dominant in the jurisdictions in which they are a majority. These include the city of Tetovo and other towns near Macedonia's borders with Albania and Kosovo.
Zoran Tanevski, the spokesman for the election commission, says campaigning for the 85 local councils was vigorous and mostly without incident. A run-off election for mayoral candidates who fail to win a first round majority takes place March 27. "These elections, you could say, are one kind of test for democratic progress in our society. And having in mind that Macedonia is intending to become a member of NATO and the European Union, we have to show that we have achieved [significant] democratic standards," he said.
Since breaking away from Yugoslavia in 1991, Macedonia has compiled an enviable record for conducting fair elections. Some 2,000 official and unofficial observers are monitoring these elections.
Gjordji Ivanov, a politics professor at Skopje University, says the contest to be mayor of Skopje is particularly interesting because the job has national significance. Professor Ivanov says the presence of three Albanian candidates on the ballot is likely to deprive the Macedonian incumbent of a first-round victory. "I think there is no chance [for the incumbent, Risto Penov, to win in the first round]. Because always [before], the successful candidate wins with Albanian votes. But now, Albanian votes will be going to Albanian candidates," he said.
Professor Ivanov predicts the two Macedonian candidates likely to meet in the run-off will campaign hard for Albanian support.
Diplomats give Macedonia generally high marks for progress toward ethnic reconciliation. The former chief of the Albanian insurgency of 2001 is now a senior member of the coalition government. However, Ali Ahmeti's Democratic Union for Integration is facing a significant electoral challenge from another ethnic Albanian party.