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Ethnic Albanians Boycott Macedonian Elections Marred by Reports of Voting Irregularities

Polling stations closed in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia late Sunday after run-off municipal elections which was marred by reports of voting irregularities. The main ethnic Albanian party boycotted the election.

Sunday's municipal elections were clouded by reports of attempts to manipulate voters and tamper with ballot boxes in several communities during the second and final round of Macedonia's municipal elections.

Officials said police arrested two men on charges of manipulating ballots near the northern town of Kumanovo, and a similar incident was reported in southern Macedonia.

International observers reported the first round of local elections held two weeks ago was also marked by irregularities, including violence or threats from gunmen and vote rigging.

These incidents forced the Supreme Court to order a repeat of first-round voting in 33 polling stations at 10 municipalities, including the capital, Skopje, and in the second-largest municipality, Tetovo.

Analyst Ana Petruseva, of the independent Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Skopje, told VOA the irregularities could deal a major blow to the country's ambitions to join NATO and the European Union. "Having in mind that this year this local elections might be the key thing for the EU when they judge our application for membership and it might prove fatal for our hopes to get a positive [answer] and gain the status of a candidate country," he said.

The reported vote rigging prompted the main ethnic Democratic Party of Albanians to boycott the ballot. The party accused the authorities of not being able to guarantee free and fair elections for the country's more than 500,000 ethnic Albanians, who comprise roughly 25 percent of the total population.

But analyst Petruseva says the boycott could further delay crucial political reforms as part of a Western backed peace plan that ended fighting between ethnic Albanian insurgents and Macedonian forces.

Ms. Petruseva said Sunday's poll was to boost local autonomy for the ethnic Albanian minority following the redrawing of municipal borders. "These elections are crucial for Albanians. Because this is the first time that they and Macedonians are participating in elections since the decentralization reforms that were passed last year. Basically meaning that Macedonia from highly centralized is going to devolve powers to the local authorities. And local authorities will gain quite a lot of powers in terms of health, education and some of the taxes," she said.

Macedonians were casting ballots in 57 mayoral races. Eighteen mayors were already elected in the first round earlier this month.

The election was monitored by hundreds of observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. First official results were expected Monday.