By Matt Robinson
SKOPJE (Reuters) - A general election in Macedonia passed off peacefully on Wednesday after a sometimes violent campaign that drew warnings from the European Union and NATO that the country had to prove its democratic maturity.
When polls closed at 7 p.m. (1700 GMT), there had been no reports of serious incidents.
"We are talking about fair and democratic elections, well organized and with very few irregularities," Aleksandar Bastevski, a member of the State Electoral Committee, told reporters.
Macedonian leaders had appealed for a free and fair vote to answer EU and NATO doubts over the country's readiness to move along the road to membership in the coming years.
"I expect today's vote will show that Macedonia has the democratic capacity to pass the most important tests, and draw closer to NATO and the EU," Social Democrat Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski told reporters.
The EU envoy to Skopje, Erwan Fouere, toured potential hotspots, and hinted at his optimism. "We keep our fingers crossed that at the end of the day this will be an important landmark for Macedonia," said the Irish diplomat.
Preliminary official results were expected in the early hours of Thursday, with Buckovski's Social Democrats facing a stiff challenge from the opposition VMRO-DPMNE.
His multiethnic ruling coalition has come under fire for failing to provide jobs or decent wages 15 years after Macedonia split peacefully from Yugoslavia.
The Balkan country of 2 million people came close to full-blown civil war in 2001 during a six-month long ethnic Albanian insurgency. The EU brokered a peace deal, and made Macedonia an official candidate for membership in December 2005.
But Brussels stopped short of setting a date for accession talks, urging faster reform and better elections.
Wednesday's vote was billed as a crucial test.
The start of the campaign was fiery, with two shootouts in the capital Skopje and several attacks on party offices in the mainly Albanian west. Tempers cooled as the vote got closer.
President Brank Cervenkovski, a Social Democrat, said he expected approval from Macedonia's EU mentors.
"I hope we'll earn positive remarks from Brussels, which will enable Macedonia to continue on its path to the EU and NATO," he said.
Opinion polls suggest the Social Democrats have lost ground to VMRO-DPMNE. Their modest economic reforms failed to reduce jobless figures of more than 30 percent or push the average monthly wage above 250 euros ($320).
But VMRO-DPMNE, which has tried to shed its nationalist image, may not find it easy to attract an Albanian coalition partner, analysts say.
The opposition party, named after two 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 25 percent Albanian minority greater say over its own affairs.
A faction of the rebels entered government with Buckovski.
The 25-nation EU says it will review Macedonia's membership bid, including its performance on elections, in October.
Grappling with 'fatigue' over its eastward enlargement, the bloc has not set a date for accession talks.
EU envoy Fouere said Macedonia should not raise hopes of clinching a date soon, citing the slow pace of reform.