A day after moderate leftists registered a landslide victory in Macedonia's parliamentary elections, Western observers are calling the vote free and fair, and a major step toward stability in the Balkans.

One Western diplomat described the election as an astonishing achievement. Not only was the vote largely without incident, but the losers have made clear that they will surrender power in line with the wishes of the voters.

Kimmo Kiljunen, the Finn who heads the large international observer team, says Macedonia passed the test. "Macedonian parliamentary elections were conducted largely within the OSCE commitments and standards for free and fair elections," he said.

Mr. Kiljunen says the 800-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe election team is the largest it has ever deployed.

The result was also hailed by NATO Secretary General George Robertson, who says Macedonia has taken a decisive step in the right direction.

Several-hundred NATO troops remain in Macedonia. They were sent here last year to monitor a cease-fire that ended an ethnic-Albanian uprising.

David Williams, a U.S. public opinion analyst, conducted Macedonia's first-ever exit survey of voters. He was the first to say the leftist social democrats would win an outright majority in parliament, displacing the rightwing nationalists who have been in power for four years.

Mr. Williams says his exit polling reveals that 40 percent of voters listed peace and stability as their primary concern.

"So we see economic development at 16 percent and creating new jobs at 10 percent," he said. "Improving inter-ethnic relations at two percent and implementing the framework [for peace] agreement at four percent, and reducing poverty at 11 percent."

A new government is expected to be formed next week.

The Social Democrats and their allies theoretically could rule by themselves, but observers say that is unlikely.

They will almost certainly reach out to the new Albanian party led by last year's guerrillas, the Union for Democratic Integration, which swept aside its rival and could account for 14 of the 120 seats in parliament.

During the next few days, electoral challenges will be considered and then the final results announced.