Macedonia vote passes without violence
The EU had called the elections a "moment of truth" for the ex-Yugoslav republic and authorities were pressed to ensure there was no repeat of the unrest that marred last year's parliamentary polls.
Skopje -- Macedonia voted peacefully Sunday in a presidential election key to its European Union aspirations and closely watched by the international community after deadly violence in 2008 polls.
"The elections were conducted in a good atmosphere, without incidents and with no major irregularities," Electoral Commission Chief Aleksandar Novkovski said after polling stations closed.
The EU had called the elections a "moment of truth" for the ex-Yugoslav republic, and authorities were pressed to ensure there was no repeat of the unrest that marred last year's parliamentary polls.
Macedonia is yet to start EU accession talks four years after becoming an official candidate to join the bloc, while its hopes of entering the NATO military alliance have been blocked by Greece over an 18-year name dispute.
The Balkan country came close to a full-blown war during a 2001 conflict between security forces and ethnic Albanian rebels that ended with a peace accord giving the minority more rights and control over local affairs.
When casting his ballot, outgoing President Branko Crvenkovski said "peaceful and democratic" polls were needed "to fulfil the most serious precondition for our Euro-Atlantic integration."
Police deployed 8,500 officers to prevent any recurrence of the June 1, 2008 election day shootings that left one person dead and several others wounded in an ethnic Albanian area.
Heavy snow in the western mountainous regions had disrupted voting, but that had little impact on the turnout, which easily surpassed a 50 percent threshold for the polls to be valid.
The EU's representative in Macedonia, Erwan Fouere, congratulated authorities on the peaceful conduct of the vote.
"Of course we'll have to wait for the final... report, but from what I have seen at the polling stations I have visited... the elections seem to have taken place in a reasonably calm atmosphere," Fouere told AFP.
"For this I would like to congratulate the electoral board and especially the voters who despite the bad weather came out to vote."
Early results released by the commission showed George Ivanov of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party well in front of his main rivals but well short of the margin required to prevent an April 5 runoff.
Opinion polls had favoured Ivanov to come first and ethnic Albanian leader Imer Selmani second in Sunday's first round, when almost 1.8 million voters were asked to choose from seven candidates.
While voting in Skopje, Ivanov appealed to voters of the majority Slavic Macedonian nation to "behave responsibly to contribute to ... the European perspective for Macedonia."
Selmani, who represents a minority of about 25 percent of the two million population, said: "I expect inter-ethnic barriers to be overcome" so that candidates are chosen on the basis of "vision and concepts" rather than ethnicity.
Nicknamed "Macedonia's Obama" due to multi-ethnic support, Selmani was credited with almost 14 percent of voter support in the latest opinion poll, enough to see him make it through to a likely second round against Ivanov, who was backed by 23 percent.
The main opposition Social Democratic Union (SDSM) party's candidate, Ljubomir Frckoski, was supported by around nine percent electorate, according to the same survey.
Besides the presidential poll, voters were also asked to elect mayors and councillors of major towns in Macedonia, which won independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.
More than 500 foreign and about 7,000 local observers were monitoring the vote, including some 300 from the election watchdog Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.