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Ruling Coalition in Macedonia Is Defeated

Balkans: Crowds celebrate the victories of moderate parties that focused on fighting corruption in races for parliamentary seats.

September 16, 2002|ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SKOPJE, Macedonia — With honking car horns, celebratory gunfire and surging crowds, exuberant Macedonians heralded the outcome early today of parliamentary elections in which the ruling coalition was defeated overwhelmingly by more moderate parties.

The largely peaceful election was itself a victory for this small southeastern European country just a year after violent fighting that pitted ethnic Albanian rebels battling for more rights against ethnic Macedonians who feared that the rebels' real intent was to divide the country.

Preliminary voting results indicated that the majority of Macedonia's 2.2 million people were tired of the politicians who had led them into last year's armed conflict, who were tainted by corruption charges and who had resorted to nationalist rhetoric whenever they wanted to rally support.

One of the winners was a new party formed by Ali Ahmeti, the former leader of the ethnic Albanian guerrillas involved in last year's fighting.

"People are sick of violence, crime and corruption and the war rhetoric," said Vladimir Milcin, who runs the Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute here. "The victory of the opposition is so clear.... Now it is the task of civil society to help keep the new government under control. This is just the beginning."

Macedonians of both major ethnicities--there are small groups of people with other ethnic backgrounds in the country--were cautious in assessing the impact of the election. They said they remained wary that, despite campaign pledges, politicians might find it hard to resist corruption, and added that the parties that lost power had also promised to run a clean government.

"We are choosing the lesser evil," said Georgi Marjanovic, a Skopje law professor who is also a leader of a minor political party. "But it is better especially because the corruption here during these past four years was an embarrassment for the country."

Western diplomats said the election appeared to have been relatively fair.

"Thus far, the results are very positive, especially when you compare it with previous elections," said one diplomat, noting that, in both the 1999 presidential election and 2000 local elections, there were serious allegations of vote tampering and intimidation.

On Sunday, there were only scattered troubling incidents: the shooting of a supporter of one of the Albanian parties at a polling place north of Skopje, the capital, and the robbery of a ballot box from the ethnic Macedonian village of Lesok by armed ethnic Macedonians believed to be allied with the current government. There were also other reports of shooting near polling places.

About 840 international election monitors patrolled the polling places, backed up by the 700 troops from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization who remain in the country as peacekeepers.

Macedonia's government traditionally has been a coalition made up of an ethnic Macedonian party and an ethnic Albanian one. Indeed, Sunday's election was in essence two elections, since people of one ethnicity almost never vote for those of another.

There are 120 seats in the parliament, and a party or coalition must control at least 61 to form a government.

The possibility of postelection problems still exists, with real questions about whether the winning Macedonian party will refuse to form a coalition with Ahmeti's party because of his role in last year's fighting. It is even possible, given the number of seats won by the ethnic Macedonian Social Democrats, that they might not need to form a coalition, but they will almost certainly be under strenuous pressure from Westerners to do so.

Ahmeti has offered to eschew an official role in the government, but clearly he would be managing his party from behind the scenes.

Ahmeti's transformation from outlaw to legitimate politician was almost certainly the most startling development in the campaign. In his stronghold of Tetovo, the country's second-largest city, posters of him looking well-groomed and wearing a respectable suit and tie greeted visitors on every street.

Among his supporters, there was no sign of the guns and camouflage uniforms that were the signature of his National Liberation Army last year. The only signal of his continuing rebel status was in the conference room of his Tetovo-area headquarters, where five little flags--including the United States'--were perched on the main table. None of them was Macedonia's.

A party strategist who asked not to be identified said the reason for the omission was that the party feared that displaying the flag would alienate ethnic Albanian supporters. However, the party must walk a thin line between distancing itself from its rebel past and using that past to rally voters.

"Ahmeti represents the war and the crisis last year. He stands for everything the Albanians are fighting for," said one of Ahmeti's deputies, Agron Buxhaku, who gave up a job in the Belgian Parliament to work for Ahmeti.

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