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Elections 'Huge Victory' for Macedonia

Voters win international approval for replacing hard line prime minister with leading moderate.
By Ana Petruseva

The defeat of right wing nationalists in Macedonia`s general election has been hailed in the West as an important boost to stability in a republic long troubled by ethnic strife.

"There will be more hard work ahead and many more challenges, but these elections are a decisive step in the right direction and a clear rejection of the violence which tarnished the last months," said NATO secretary general George Robertson.

Voters kicked out the hard line government of Prime Minister Ljupco Georgievski, whose nationalist policies contributed to tensions with the country's Albanian minority, opting instead for the moderate Social Democrats, the SDSM, led by Branko Crvenkovski. Former guerrilla leader Ali Ahmeti's Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, won strong support from Albanian voters.

Preliminary results from the state electoral commission showed the winning coalition, led by SDSM, had gained 40.4 per cent of the vote, with Georgievski`s party and its allies accruing just over half that's figure. More than 70 per cent of the 1.6 million electorate participated in the ballot.

Georgievski conceded defeat just minutes before midnight on Sunday, congratulating the winner and praising the elections as peaceful and fair. Speaking at a news conference, an unexpectedly gracious Georgievski said, "These were the most just and democratic elections in this country's parliamentary past, which can only improve Macedonia's image in the Balkans and in the international community."

There was celebratory gunfire as flag-waving supporters celebrated Crvenkovski's victory on the streets of the capital. On Monday, tens of thousands attended a post-election rally where the SDSM leader told a cheering crowd, "We showed and we proved that we are a mature nation which knows what needs to be done. This is a huge victory for Macedonia."

Macedonian president Boris Trajkovski commended political parties for showing a high level of political maturity and said, "The elections were, in the true meaning of the word, European elections."

The new government faces a number of serious challenges, namely an impoverished economy and simmering ethnic tensions.

Unlike previous contests since Macedonia's independence in 1991, this ballot was surprisingly free of fraud, with only few minor incidents reported. The Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, had deployed 850 observers to monitor the vote. "Macedonian society passed the test," said its head Kimmo Kiljunen.

One major twist in the elections was strong support for the ex-guerrilla leader Ali Ahmeti, whose DUI party gained 11.8 per cent of the vote.

Ahmeti, who led the Albanian insurgents during last year's violence, is seen as a hero among his people, while most ethnic Macedonians still regard him as a terrorist who provoked the conflict in order to grab territory.

After the violence ended 13 months ago, Ahmeti became a leading moderate in Albanian politics. Western diplomats described him as "trustworthy and reliable" because of his efforts to prevent further conflict and fully implement the western-sponsored Ohrid peace accord of August 2001.

Ethnic Albanian voters decided to ditch Ahmeti`s rival party, the discredited Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, led by Arben Xhaferi. Preliminary results showed only 5.2 per cent support for the party, which had shared power with Georgievski and was tainted by allegations of corruption that dogged the ruling coalition.

Party sources said SDSM's coalition with the Liberal-Democrats has won 60 seats out of 120 in the new parliament. The coalition of VMRO-DPMNE and the Liberal Party took 33 seats, Ahmeti's DUI 16, the DPA seven, with two other Albanian parties, the National Democratic Party, NDP, and the Party for Democratic Prosperity, PDP, gaining one and two seats respectively.

"If we want peace and stability in Macedonia, the next government should be built between the parties which won the majority of votes in the Albanian and Macedonian communities," Ahmeti told Reuters.

So far, the triumphant SDSM has said that there is no room for Ahmeti in its government but has not ruled out the possibility DUI members being given ministerial positions.

The constitution requires parliament to be formed not later than 20 days after the elections and the government to be chosen 10 days after that.

Ahmeti, whose name is on American president George Bush's blacklist of extremists, has repeatedly said he would not enter parliament or become a government minister.

Ana Petruseva is a regular IWPR contributor in Skopje.

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