Monday, July 10, 2006

Macedonia faces period of coalition building

By Kole Casule

SKOPJE (Reuters) - Macedonia faced a period of coalition building on Thursday following a national election that sank the ruling coalition and assuaged European Union concerns over the country's democratic maturity.

Projected results from the non-governmental group MOST gave the conservative opposition VMRO-DPMNE around 43 seats in the 120-seat parliament, against 30 for the ruling Social Democrats.

VMRO-DPMNE, which was last in power when an ethnic Albanian insurgency threatened civil war in 2001, must enter coalition with one of the main Albanian parties, possibly the ex-rebels.

Full official results were expected on Friday. The prime minister-elect has two months to form a government.

"Ahead of us is a small celebration, and from the morning we'll start creating the new government," VMRO-DPMNE leader Nikola Gruevski, a former finance minister, said in the early hours of Thursday.

Social Democrat Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski acknowledged defeat in a televised address within five hours of polls closing, a quick, clean concession by Balkan standards.

Depending on the final results, VMRO-DPMNE might have to convince Buckovski's Albanian partner in government, former rebel leader Ali Ahmeti, to switch allegiance.

Buckovski called on Gruevski to form a government as soon as possible. "If he can't, we are here," he said.


There was tangible relief that the vote passed off peacefully and the result was not contested, after a sometimes violent campaign that drew warnings from the EU and NATO that Macedonia's bid to join both blocs was on the line.

Macedonia split from Yugoslavia peacefully in 1991 but ethnic conflict caught up with the republic of two million in 2001 when a six-month Albanian guerrilla insurgency drove it close to civil war, until Western diplomacy intervened.

The preservation of a stable, multiethnic Macedonia next door to the U.N.-run province of Kosovo, whose Albanian majority is expected to win independence soon, is crucial to EU policy for stability in the Balkans.

The EU made Macedonia an official candidate for membership in December 2005, but stopped short of setting a date for accession talks, citing election flaws and the slow pace of reform. An EU review is due in late October, but diplomats say Macedonia will still have to wait for a date for talks.

The Social Democrats have formed three of the country's four governments since independence. But they are widely criticised for failing to improve a formerly Socialist economy crippled by high unemployment, low wages and little investment.

VMRO-DPMNE, named after two 19th century groups of Macedonians who fought against the Ottoman Turks, lost power in 2002 after the Ahmeti-led insurgency.

Fighting stopped in autumn 2001 under a deal promising the Albanians greater say over their own affairs.

Once in opposition, VMRO-DPMNE cast off its nationalist image. But coalition with the Albanians is imperative in Macedonian politics, and neither of the two main Albanian parties has so far wooed the new VMRO-DPMNE.

Partial results showed Ahmeti's Democratic Union for Integration holding its majority in Albanian constituencies, which are mainly in the west.

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