Voters in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia are voting to chose a successor to the late president Boris Trajkovski, who was killed in a plane crash earlier this year. The election is seen as a watershed for the small Balkan nation, which has been plagued by ethnic tensions and poverty.

Voting stations opened early, amid opinion-poll predictions of a presidential victory for Macedonia's current prime minister, Branko Crvenkovski.

The 41-year-old Social Democrat has pledged to quit politics if he fails to win the presidency in a vote that is seen as a crucial indication for the future political direction of the country.

If elected, Mr. Crvenkovski is expected to continue the policy of moderation spearheaded by the late president Trajkovski, under which more cultural and political rights were granted to Macedonia's ethnic-Albanian minority of at least half a million people.

Mr. Trajkovski, who was killed in a plane crash in Bosnia in February, was also credited with supervising a Western-mediated peace plan that ended the 2001 conflict between Macedonian forces and ethnic-Albanian fighters.

Presidential candidate Crvenkovski was facing three other, less moderate opponents in Macedonian nationalist Sasko Kedev, a heart surgeon, and two former ethnic-Albanian commanders, Gezim Ostreni and Zidi Xhelili.

If none of the candidates receives at least 50 percent of the vote, a run-off election will be held on April 28.

Whatever the outcome of the presidential poll, the new Macedonian government is expected to continue to cooperate with Western institutions, including seeking membership in the European Union and NATO.

Membership in these institutions is viewed by a number of politicians as a crown on the reform efforts of the young country of two million people, which became an independent nation in 1991.