The leader of the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) and former rebel commander Ali Ahmeti joins with his mother as they cast their votes during Macedonia's municipal elections
NATO, the European Union and western governments are calling on Macedonian leaders to insure that the second round of local elections to be held March 27 are free of the irregularities that marred the first round of voting March 13.

Voting went smoothly in most parts of Macedonia, but there were serious problems in Skopje and in ethnic-Albanian areas near Tetovo.  Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) called attention to the problem earlier this week.  Now the secretary general of NATO is warning that democratic elections are essential for countries that want to join the western alliance.  Macedonia is hopeful it will obtain a membership invitation next year.

The major problem was in Skopje where there are charges of vote rigging on behalf of the incumbent mayor.  The independent challenger believes he obtained over 50 percent of the vote and won the first round.   His claim has been rejected by the Macedonian electoral commission.

The two Macedonian rivals are to face off in the second round voting. One western diplomat, alarmed at the irregularities, warned government officials "not to win Skopje, but lose Brussels." That is a reference to Macedonia's hopes of joining NATO and the European Union.

Iso Rusi, the editor of Macedonia's main Albanian language news magazine, says the Albanian party that is the junior partner in the ruling coalition was responsible for several vote rigging incidents.  Mr. Rusi is not optimistic that the situation will improve in the second round.

"I don't believe that it will be [better]. It will be even worse.  Because the real choice will be made now when the main candidates, are running for the mayors' place. They [the incumbents] are staying. And tensions will be higher," he noted.

These elections are the first in Macedonia under a 2001 inter-ethnic accord that gives the country's 25 percent Albanian minority increased powers.  While Macedonia's two principal ethnic groups remain at odds politically, they are unified in wanting Macedonia to become a member of NATO and the European Union.