Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski declared victory in Macedonia`s early parliamentary election Sunday after a vote marred by reports of fraud and gunbattles that could deal a blow to the Balkan country`s European Union and NATO aspirations, according to CNN.
Violence that centered on ethnic Albanian areas left one person dead and eight wounded, authorities said, and underscored the increasing rivalry between the minority`s two main parties.
Authorities suspended voting in 22 polling stations -- 1 percent of the country`s total -- because of intimidation, violence or reports of ballot fraud, and said they would hold reruns for those areas.
Jovan Josifovski, the head of the state election commission, said that with votes from 82.63 percent of polling stations counted, VMRO won 48.13 percent of the vote, far ahead of the Social Democrats` 22.19 percent. The Democratic Party of Albanians led by Menduh Thaci had 10.13 percent, while the rival ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration had 11.26 percent.
Hundreds of Gruevski`s supporters spilled onto the main square in Skopje, the capital, to celebrate, waving party flats and chanting his name.
"Macedonia has the power to go ahead. The country has the energy for progress, to join NATO and EU," Gruevski said in his victory speech.
"I regret for the violence and incidents that broke in Macedonia`s northwest, in the areas with ethnic Albanians. But the vote was mostly fair and peaceful in the rest of the country," he said.
In the predominantly ethnic Albanian town of Tetovo, hundreds of Thaci`s supporters gathered in front of the DPA`s headquarters where music blasted from loudspeakers and dozens of cars circled the main square, waving flags and shooting in the air.
Western observers expressed grave concern over the conduct of the election.
"We are deeply concerned by the many ... corroborated reports of not only acts of intimidation, but also blatant violence, shooting, injuries to innocent people," said Erwan Fouere, head of the European Union office in Macedonia.
Such intimidation and violence "have no place in a democratic society," he told The Associated Press.
Interior Ministry spokesman Ivo Kotevski said one person was killed, eight were wounded and 21 were arrested. Those detained included former rebel commander Agim Krasniqi, who had led a 50-strong armed group into a village north of Skopje in 2004 claiming the government and ethnic Albanian leaders had broken promises to provide former rebels with an amnesty and jobs.
The head of the Social Democrats, Radmila Sekerinska, congratulated Gruevski on his victory, but criticized the conduct of the election.
"The price that we have paid today is to high because there were a loss of human life, violations, shootings. I hope the wining coalition will consider that and will understand that this behavior was unacceptable," she said. "These were the worst organized elections and the winners are taking now the huge responsibility for Macedonia."
Macedonia had hoped the election would produce a strong government, and would prove it was ready to set a date for the start of EU accession talks. Macedonia was also bitterly disappointed at being blocked from joining NATO by neighboring Greece because of a dispute over the country`s name.
Political analyst Biljana Vankovska said the violence had created "the worst scenario that someone could imagine for Macedonia."
"We did not need this, and now Macedonia is missing the chance to prove its capability as stabile democracy," Vankovska said.
Even long before polls opened, it was clear there could be problems amongst the two main ethnic Albanian parties, which were locked in a vitriolic and frequently violent campaign. In the weeks before the campaign, international monitors recorded reports of 13 attacks against DUI party offices. In mid-May, DUI party leader Ali Ahmeti`s car was shot at in what he described as an assassination attempt.
Ethnic Albanians make up about a quarter of Macedonia`s 2.1 million people. Rebels fought a six-month insurgency in 2001 for more rights, but now the minority`s two main parties are locked in bitter rivalry.
Tensions escalated with the 2006 elections, when Gruevski picked the DPA as a governing coalition partner, even though it had won less votes than Ahmeti`s DUI.
Thaci has often threatened to walk out of the coalition, and did so briefly in April, contributing to a political crisis that led Gruevski to call snap elections two years early.
Ahmeti`s DUI said it would not recognize election results in seven municipalities, including in the main ethnic Albanian town of Tetovo, in the country`s northwest, because of the violence.
"Macedonia has failed in the test of organizing free and democratic elections, which is the key test to establish a democratic state," DUI election official Izet Mexhidi said before results were announced.
Ahmeti accused "criminal structures ... backed by the police" for the violence, and said his party had tried to "avoid provocation."
Ethnic Albanian voters were angered by the violence.
"Today is a very bad today for all of us, as Albanians but also as a country. A country aspiring to join NATO and EU should have never allowed something like this to happen," said Fisnik Sejdiu, who at 18 was voting for the first time. "Unfortunately, for some politicians, power and individual interests seem more important than the future of the country."