SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonia's conservative coalition won most of the local elections in the country with outside observers approving the process, but the opposition party's leader objected, declaring the elections "were not free and fair."
Electoral Commission information from 98 percent of the votes shows the coalition "For a better Macedonia," led by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski's VMRO-DPMNE party, won 43 of the country's 81 communities in the first round of elections Sunday. The party notably won the election in the capital, Skopje, and is favored to win 12 runoffs on Sunday.
Outside election monitors said the elections were "efficiently administered" but were also critical of some aspects.
Gruevski proclaimed victory early Monday, adding that Macedonia had organized "free, fair and democratic elections that brought victory to all citizens and Macedonia", which will help the country to strengthen its case for European Union membership.
But Social Democrat leader Branko Crvenkovski, head of the left-wing opposition and a former president of Macedonia, said the elections "were not free and fair. Until all irregularities are cleared we have all options open, including not to participate in the rerun."
The Social Democrats won five municipalities and are considered favorites to win another two in the runoffs. Members of the country's Roma, Serbian and Turkish communities each won a municipal election.
In a joint report, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe approved of the administration of the elections, saying they were "highly competitive" but stopped short of total approval of the process.
"Although the campaign was active, partisan media coverage and a blurring of state and party activities did not always provide a level playing field for candidates to contest the elections. Inter-ethnic tensions overshadowed the campaign. Election day was calm, although some procedural irregularities were observed," the report said.
These "procedural irregularities" included dozens of cases described as "family voting" — with one family member openly guiding others as to which candidate to vote for, and voters seen taking photos of their ballots with cell phones — possibly to offer proof to people to whom they'd promised to vote a certain way.
The report also noted that "although the media ... provided extensive campaign coverage in the news, the public broadcaster and several private broadcasters displayed bias in favor of the governing coalition."
The Social Democrats had joined the elections at the last moment. They had boycotted the Parliament for more than two months but ended the boycott earlier this month after talks brokered by the European Parliament and the EU Commission. EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele had said the opposition's participation in the local elections is crucial for Macedonia's EU candidacy.
Voter turnout was 67.61 percent, among the highest since Macedonia proclaimed its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.