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Macedonia's ruling Social Democrats voted out

Written by: Staff

SKOPJE, July 6 (Reuters) Macedonia faced a change of government for the third time in eight years today, following a textbook election performance lacking in previous polls and a quick concession by the losers.

The process was likely to please the European Union and NATO, which had appealed for a politically mature election. But the result could create new uncertainties in a country troubled by unrest among its 25 percent Albanian minority.

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 UN-run province of Kosovo whose Albanian majority is expected to win independence soon -- is key to EU policy for stability in the Balkans.

Confirming pollsters' predictions , Social Democrat Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski ended a day of peaceful voting yesterday by conceding defeat to his conservative opponents, answering EU calls for a prompt and clear result.

Buckovski, the country's leader in tandem with a party of former Albanian rebels inspired by Kosovo's example in 1999, called the leader of the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party to concede.

''I called (Nikola) Gruevski to congratulate him and to ask him to form a government as quickly as possible. If he can't, we are here,'' Buckovski said on state television.

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.

WORKING MAJORITY? The VMRO-DPMNE claimed it had won 55 of 120 seats in parliament, against 32 for the ruling Social Democrats. If confirmed by official results due later today, this would almost certainly allow it to form a government.

VMRO-DPMNE, named after two 19th century groups of Macedonians who fought against the Ottoman Turks, lost power in 2002 after ethnic Albanian guerrillas seized swathes of land in the north and west and fought government forces for six months.

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 on Wednesday showed the Albanian party in the outgoing coalition, led by former rebel commander Ali Ahmeti, was holding its majority in Albanian constituencies mainly in the west of the former Yugoslav republic.

There has been no indication of whether it would be ready to switch allegiance to the opposition.

The election passed off peacefully after a sometimes violent campaign that drew warnings from the EU and NATO that the country had to prove its democratic maturity.

There were no reports of serious incidents.

''We are talking about fair and democratic elections, well organised and with very few irregularities,'' said Aleksandar Bastevski, a member of the State Electoral Committee.

President Branko Crvenkovski, a Social Democrat, said: ''I hope we'll earn positive remarks from Brussels.'' Reuters DH VP0612

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