Voting began in Macedonia on Sunday in the first local elections under a 2001 peace deal to give the country’s 25 per cent Albanian minority greater power.
The move to decentralise power is the final, and key, pillar of the Ohrid accord brokered by the West with Albanian rebels more than three years ago to prevent a new Balkan civil war.
The vote takes place in 84 municipalities, cut from 123 by a deal within the multi-ethnic ruling coalition to redraw boundaries and shift the balance of power in some areas.
The elected officials are responsible for the implementation of the agreement, devolving power over education, health and economic development.
The West is impatient to see the Ohrid accord in place. NATO and the European Union have conditioned Macedonia’s integration on its full passage and want a peaceful vote.
“This is a hugely important and significant step opening the final chapter of the Ohrid Accord,” Michael Sahlin, the EU’s envoy to Macedonia, told Reuters.
Violence has flared over the deal in the past but Sahlin said he did not expect any major incident on voting day. The OSCE has sent 350 observers.
This last clause of the accord has infuriated opposition nationalists who say it will encourage Albanian separatists, and analysts say opposition parties may do well, given voter dissatisfaction with the government over jobs and growth.
The seven-month insurgency in 2001 pushed Macedonia to the brink of civil war. With the Ohrid accord, Albanian rebels laid down their arms and went into politics, joining the Socialist-led ruling coalition.
Albanians make up a quarter of Macedonia’s 2 million people, living mainly in the north and west of the country on the borders with Albania and Kosovo, Serbia’s Albanian-dominated province run by the United Nations since 1999.
The West wants a stable Macedonia ahead of a potentially explosive decision expected later this year on whether Kosovo becomes independent, as Kosovo Albanians demand.
Polls close at 7pm. Parties could present their own findings late on Sunday, with official results on Wednesday. Some 1.7 million people are eligible to vote.