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Conservatives tipped to win in Macedonia's snap polls

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(SKOPJE) - Macedonia's ruling conservatives were tipped to win snap polls Sunday despite widespread poverty and a stalemate in Skopje's bid to join the European Union, but the opposition cried foul alleging vote fraud.

The legislative vote was held a year ahead of schedule after the ruling VMRO-DPMNE failed to agree with its ethnic Albanian coalition partner, the DUI, on a joint presidential candidate.

Voters also cast ballots in the run-off for president, a largely ceremonial post with a five-year mandate, pitting incumbent Gjorge Ivanov of the VMRO-DPMNE against his Social Democrat (SDSM) rival Stevo Pendarovski.

Opinion polls gave a strong lead to both Ivanov and the VMRO-DPMNE.

But shortly after polling stations closed at 1700 GMT, the main opposition SDSM party said it would not recognise the election.

"Citizens were duped and the elections have been stolen. The government has conducted unfair and non-democratic elections," SDSM leader Zoran Zaev told reporters.

Zaev called for new elections to be held, accusing the VMRO-DPMNE of "massive buying of votes" and "pressure exerted on citizens" to vote for the ruling party without detailing alleged irregularities.

However Subhi Jakupi of the state electoral commission told AFP no complaints on irregularities had been received.

"The parties have 48 hours to file complaints," Jakupi said.

Electoral officials said turnout was 53.1 percent of more than 1.7 million voters two hours before the polling stations closed.

VMRO-DPMNE hopes to increase its tally in the 123-seat parliament to 62 deputies and enable its leader Nikola Gruevski to secure a third term as prime minister of the former Yugoslav republic, an EU candidate since 2005.

"We need a majority so nobody can blackmail us and we can keep up with a programme... that would lead Macedonia into the EU and NATO," Gruevski told a final rally Friday.

In the outgoing assembly, Gruevski's party had just 55 seats, which forced them into a coalition with several minor parties.

- 'Poverty is everywhere' -

During the campaign, Gruevski urged voters to back his measures to revive Macedonia's ailing economy, which showed signs of recovery last year when it posted 3.1 percent output growth.

With unemployment above 28 percent in the country of two million where the average monthly salary stands at just 350 euros ($480), ordinary Macedonians remain gloomy about their prospects.

Pensioner Milica Stevcevska complained of "extremely high living costs".

"Poverty is everywhere, pensions are so low and life so expensive, I would not be able to survive without the help from my son."

The opposition accused Gruevski of turning a blind eye to corruption and pressures on the media.

"Macedonia's choice is between the right to a better life or continuous state robbery," Zaev charged during the campaign.

But worker Stevan Pocev said he had confidence in the ruling party to "lead the country in a good direction".

"If they are given another mandate, I expect they will solve the unemployment problem and improve living standards for the citizens," he said ahead of the vote.

- What's in a name? -

One of the main tasks for the new government will be to kickstart Macedonia's integration into the EU and NATO, blocked for years over a name dispute with neighbouring Greece.

Greece has a northern province historically called Macedonia, and the two countries have been at loggerheads over the right to use the name ever since the former Yugoslav republic proclaimed independence in 1991.

Analysts say Skopje can either strike an unpopular deal with Greece or risk continued economic and political damage.

Of the parties representing ethnic Albanians, about a quarter of Macedonia's population, the Democratic Union for Integration enjoys the support of about seven percent.

Relations between ethnic Albanians and the Macedonian majority have been strained since a seven-month armed conflict in 2001 between government forces and Albanian guerrillas seeking more rights.

The conflict ended with an internationally brokered peace accord in August 2001 that gave ethnic Albanians more political clout.

More than 10,000 observers monitored the vote. Preliminary results are expected early Monday.

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