Macedonians set to hand conservative PM Gruevski new term

SKOPJE Sat Apr 26, 2014 6:29pm EDT

Presidential candidate of ruling VMRO-DPMNE Gjorge Ivanov (R) greets his supporters next to Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski during an election campaign rally in Veles April 25, 2014. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski

Presidential candidate of ruling VMRO-DPMNE Gjorge Ivanov (R) greets his supporters next to Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski during an election campaign rally in Veles April 25, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Ognen Teofilovski

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SKOPJE (Reuters) - Macedonia's conservative Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski is likely to win a third term in a snap election on Sunday, as relative economic stability has kept at bay opposition complaints that his rule is authoritarian.

The parliamentary vote in the small Balkan country coincides with a presidential runoff in which the incumbent Gjorge Ivanov, a candidate of Gruevski's VMRO-DPNE, looks set to beat a Social Democrat rival and win the largely ceremonial post.

Gruevski, 43, has ruled the landlocked ex-Yugoslav republic of two million people since 2006 in coalition with the DUI party of former ethnic Albanian guerrillas.

"I expect the same coalition to remain in office but with a slightly different balance of power in favor of VMRO-DPMNE," said Zhidas Daskalovski of the Centre for Research and Development, a Skopje-based think-tank.

The last survey published before the vote gave VMRO-DPMNE a lead of 28.4 percent over the main opposition center-left SDSM on 14.1 percent. The DUI party was on 7.1 percent.

"I think this will be Gruevski's last election victory, his last chance to show he honestly wants to change our lives for the better," said Dragan Cvetanov, a 37-year-old father of two.

Opposition parties have accused Gruevski of creeping authoritarianism and corruption and foreign diplomats in Skopje say there are concerns about media freedom and political pressure on journalists.

The U.S. and EU officials in Skopje have publicly urged political leaders to make sure the vote is "credible and transparent", something the SDSM party has already disputed.

"On Sunday Macedonia is choosing whether it will support the fight for freedom and the right to a better life, or continue with state robbery," SDSM leader Zoran Zaev told a news conference on the last day of campaigning.

NAMING DISPUTE

During Gruevski's tenure, Macedonia's hopes of joining the European Union hit a brick wall due to a dispute with neighboring Greece over what Macedonia would be formally called by the two organizations.

Athens will not accept its formal description as simply "Macedonia", which is also the name of a province of northern Greece.

Macedonia remains one of Europe's poorest countries but Gruevski's government boasts solid economic growth, low public debt and a rise of foreign investment, bucking negative trends elsewhere in the region, badly hit by the euro zone crisis.

Diplomats have also praised him for keeping a lid on tensions between Macedonia's Slav majority and its large ethnic Albanian minority, whose rebellion in 2001 to secure more political rights brought the country to the brink of civil war.

Western diplomacy stopped the fighting and the rebels entered politics. Macedonia was promised NATO and EU integration like the rest of the former Yugoslavia, and became a formal candidate for EU membership in 2005.

But Greece has blocked accession to NATO and the start of EU membership talks until a solution is found to the name dispute.

"I really don't expect much to change. There will be no EU, no NATO. Greece has no intention to let us pass and we will remain isolated," said student Boris Janakovski in Skopje.

The parliamentary election was called a year ahead of schedule, after the coalition partners failed to agree on a consensus candidate for president.

(Reporting by Zoran Radosavljevic; editing by Andrew Roche)

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