Macedonians vote amid political crisis

Macedonians went to the polls Sunday to vote in local elections held against a backdrop of ethnic tensions, amid an ongoing political crisis between the conservative government majority and opposition socialists.

Relations between Macedonians and ethnic Albanians have been strained since the end of a seven-month conflict in 2001 between Macedonian armed forces and ethnic Albanian rebels.

A tense political climate has also reigned in the former Yugoslav republic since December, when the opposition decided to boycott parliament following scuffles that broke out during a heated debate on the 2013 budget.

Polling stations opened early Sunday morning and no hitches had been reported so far, electoral commission spokeswoman Biljana Jovanovska told AFP.

A high turnout is expected, with polls forecasting up to 70 percent out of 1.7 million eligible voters will cast their ballot for mayors and municipal councillors.

According to Albanian political parties, several thousands ethnic Albanians who live abroad have come to vote on special flights or by car -- mostly from Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, Italy and the United States.

The election -- supervised by more than 8,000 domestic and 400 foreign observers -- has already yielded a few surprises.

In the southwestern cities of Kicevo and Struga, Macedonia's ruling VMRO party and opposition SDSM -- the country's fiercest political rivals -- have for the first time in 20 years joined ranks behind a single candidate.

Similarly, the ethnic Albanian DUI and DPA parties -- also political rivals -- are backing the same candidate in the two cities.

As such, all eyes will be on Kicevo and Struga where the outcome of the mayoral race is a firm unknown. Preliminary results are expected around midnight.

Ethnic Albanians make up some 25 percent of Macedonia's population of two million, and a peace deal signed in August 2001 after the conflict gave them greater rights.

The European Union has warned Macedonia -- a candidate for EU membership since 2005 -- that democratic and fair elections are a key stipulation for getting a positive recommendation to open accession talks with Brussels.