CEOL
Flawed Macedonian vote bad for govt, region

SKOPJE, Sep 12, 2000 -- (Reuters) The course of local elections in Macedonia, marred by violence and intimidation among ethnic Albanians, shows a continuing lack of the stability that is desperately needed in the Balkans, analysts said on Monday.

The vote was seen as a serious setback for the ruling reformist coalition, but most doubted that the government would heed opposition demands for an early general election.

"It is a clear defeat for the government," said an analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG), a respected think tank that runs a special project on Macedonia. "It has increased the urgency for the coalition to get its act together."

International interest in the poll was high because of Macedonia's strategic importance.

The election will set the tone for several forthcoming polls in the Balkans, including votes in Yugoslavia and then Kosovo.

The small country, with a fragile two-to-one balance between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians, borders Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and its UN-administered province of Kosovo, and any destabilization there affects the whole region.

Furthermore, Macedonia, one of Europe's poorest states with unemployment over 30 percent, is still recovering from the Kosovo crisis last year when some 300,000 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo flooded in.

REGIONAL SPLIT

There were no official results yet from the first round held on Sunday, and the final outcome will become clear only after the second round on September 24, but the trend was clear.

The opposition, led by the ex-communist Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), had a firm lead over two parties in the government coalition that represent ethnic Macedonians - VMRO-DPMNE and the Democratic Alternative.

SDSM looked to have won or to be poised to win in most of the bigger cities, including the capital Skopje.

But in western Macedonia, populated by ethnic Albanians who make up about one-third of the 2.1 million population, the Democratic Party of Albanians, part of the government, was far ahead of its rival, the PDP.

The DPA ran separately from its coalition partners in the first round, promising to back their candidates in the second.

But the PDP said that DPA activists had harassed, intimidated and sometimes physically attacked its supporters, at least four of whom had been injured by firearms.

Some Western diplomats based in Skopje acknowledged that voting in many mostly Albanian areas had been marred by proxy voting, ballot stuffing and violence.

"I was shocked by the open fraud which took place in our presence," said one. He said voting had been normal in most of the country but not in the ethnic Albanian areas.

IRREGULARITIES REPEATED

The irregularities in Sunday's poll were strikingly similar to last year's presidential vote, when massive support from DPA supporters allowed the government candidate, Boris Trajkovski, to come from behind to beat his SDSM rival in the second round.

A partial re-run was held but did not change the overall outcome.

"The government has to take responsibility for the electoral process, it cannot go on like this, incidents happen in the same place all over again," the diplomat said.

The decline in the government's popularity stems from popular discontent over the hardships of market reforms, accompanied by a jobless rate of over 30 percent.

Improvements in relations with neighbors, notably Bulgaria and Greece, have not translated into an improvement in the living standards of ordinary voters.

The SDSM also played the nationalist card in its campaign, accusing the coalition of doing too much for ethnic Albanians and too little for ethnic Macedonians.

The ICG analysts also said the PDP's intention to withdraw from the second round after its complaints of intimidation could lead to further tension in the Albanian community.



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