SKOPJE Macedonian voters look likely to hand conservative Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski a third term in a snap parliamentary election on Sunday, opting for relative economic stability and shrugging off opposition claims of creeping authoritarianism.
Gruevski, 43, has run the small, landlocked former Yugoslav republic of two million people since 2006, in coalition with the DUI party of former ethnic Albanian guerrillas.
The latest survey by Dimitrija Cuposki Institute on Tuesday put his VMRO-DPMNE in pole position with 28.4 percent, well ahead of the main opposition center-left SDSM party on 14.1 percent. The ethnic Albanians' DUI party was on 7.1 percent.
"VMRO and DUI still enjoy the support of the masses while the opposition is in disarray," said a senior Western diplomat in the capital Skopje.
Gruevski's eight years at the helm have seen the Balkan country's hopes of joining the European Union and NATO effectively frozen due to a long-running dispute with neighboring Greece over Macedonia's name.
This has driven his party increasingly to the nationalist right. However, through his coalition with DUI, Gruevski has largely kept a lid on tensions between Macedonia's Slav majority and its large ethnic Albanian minority, whose rebellion in 2001 brought the country to the brink of civil war.
Western diplomats remain concerned at the state of democracy and media freedom.
"We have serious concerns regarding freedom of speech. Self-censorship is widespread due to the increasing political pressure faced by journalists. Media owners are heavily tied to politics," the senior Western diplomat told Reuters.
Macedonia remains one of Europe's poorest countries, with gross domestic product (GDP) per capita at 35 percent of the EU average, an average monthly salary equivalent to just 345 euros and an unemployment rate surpassing 28 percent.
But the government points to solid economic growth, low public debt and a pick-up in foreign investment as proof of sound stewardship in a region badly hit by the euro zone crisis.
After a mild fall in 2012, the economy expanded 3.1 percent last year and should grow by roughly the same this year. Foreign direct investment rose from a modest $89.7 million in 2012 to $334 million in 2013, mostly into car parts manufacturers.
"We haven't succeeded in everything we wanted ... but we have shown Macedonia can be successful," Gruevski said in a full-page ad carried by almost all daily newspapers this week.
Analyst Zhidas Daskalovski of the Skopje-based Centre for Research and Development said the new government would again be composed of VMRO-DPNE and DUI and was likely to press on with the same economic policies and efforts to attract investments.
Ordinary Macedonians expect little change for the better.
"The government has had its chance and hasn't done enough. The problem is that I don't see an alternative in the opposition parties, so the situation will remain the same," said Marina Boskovska, 40, while buying groceries in Skopje.
Sunday's parliamentary election, which coincides with a presidential run-off, is about a year ahead of schedule and was called when the coalition partners failed to agree on a consensus candidate for president.
President Gjorge Ivanov, VMRO-DPMNE's candidate, is tipped to win a second five-year term in the largely ceremonial post.
To many Macedonians, Gruevski represents a firm hand in a country that flirted with full-blown civil war in 2001 during clashes between government forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas fighting for greater minority rights and representation.
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 for Macedonia's name, which is also that of a northern Greek province. Greeks accuse the Slav Macedonians of stealing their history.
Thumbing his nose at the Greeks, Gruevski has presided over an ambitious and costly overhaul of central Skopje, replete with a giant bronze statue of Alexander the Great on horseback.
(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Zoran Radosavljevic and Gareth Jones)